As of this writing, Garrett Briggs has left his position as Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Southern Ute Tribe to become a Tribal Relations Specialist for AECOM, an American multinational engineering firm. We wish him well and thank him and Cassandra Atencio for speaking at Western.

Updated 3-9-2022. Editor’s note: Mr. Briggs has graciously pointed out a few corrections regarding his title, the Teller Indian School, and the most appropriate usage of cultural language. The appropriate revisions have been made.

View of Tenderfoot Mountain. Courtesy of Greg Smith, 2014.

The first installment of the MS Ecology program’s Inclusive Ecology series occurred on Jan. 27 via Zoom. It was a thoughtful conversation with Southern Ute Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Garrett Briggs and Deputy Officer Cassandra Atencio. The pair shared their insights on the development of the Southern Ute’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), the federal laws relevant to their work, and the history and future of their tribe’s culture. 

The Southern Ute THPO was formally approved by the National Park Service (which has final say on tribes’ plans to establish such offices) last year. However, “the job we do now is the job we did before, but [now] we’re recognized by the federal government,” Briggs says. “What we were able to achieve this year has been 20 years in the making.” In 1986 – the same year Briggs was born– the tribe formed the Southern Ute Language and Culture Committee. 

The Committee was a response to Indian boarding schools (1869 – 1960s), the Indian Termination Policy (1940s – 1960s), and the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. These federal policies were attempts to eliminate native cultures, based on the false belief that such cultures were inferior to settler cultures and incompatible with existence in the United States. These policies left many Southern Ute people traumatized and disconnected from their heritage. 

Those elder keepers of cultural traditions are disappearing quickly. Atencio says, “we have lost a lot of elders to the pandemic. At best, we are trying to tell a story through our parents’ lives, and they may no longer be here. That’s a very sad and harsh reality, and it’s why we do what we do, and why it’s so personal and meaningful.”

One example of this work is delineated in the Denver Post article shared by Briggs before the talk. The article also includes an ongoing project on the Teller Indian School, which was located in Grand Junction, CO. That is where the work is taking place this spring in the hopes of locating the graves of at least 21 students.

The remains of students will be cared for and potentially reburied by the THPOs of their respective tribes. Ancestral remains are often under the purview of THPOs, per the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Briggs shared that the Southern Ute THPO had over 150 NAGPRA cases open at the time of the talk. 

Other crucial laws for THPO work are the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Any proposed development on the Southern Ute reservation, and any undertaking on federal land that might involve Southern Ute cultural resources, must submit a report to the THPO. The Tribe will then work with the developer to avoid or mitigate impacts to cultural resources. 

In the case of archeological findings, Briggs says, “our initial response is, ‘re-route it.’ If there’s an inadvertent discovery [during development], we will support keeping it in place. As a last resort we will work with the agency to exhume and identify areas close to the site for discovery. Those locations are kept secret, protected with the utmost respect for the individual who’s been exhumed or preserved in place.” 

But the THPO doesn’t just work with ancestral remains. Briggs says “cultural resources are tangible and intangible, and all of them are intricately connected.” Atencio adds “We consider how plants are utilized, because you can’t have ceremony without those. All your elements come into play: your earth, your wind, your fire, your grandpa rocks.” Certainly, the (restricted access) site at the top of Tenderfoot Mountain could never be separated from the context of its lofty peak and whispering grass. 

“Ecological resources are cultural resources,” says Atencio. “Somebody went there and prayed and said something over that plant, depending on where and what it is. If it’s within an area where our people could still come out, maybe the mitigation is education and a gathering right. We have a gathering right [as per the 1873 Brunot Agreement], and maybe we would reiterate that with respect to those species.” When asked by a listener how one should go about managing ecological-cultural resources at a non-tribal agency, Atencio says:

“It just depends on that consultation, that transparency, that trust. You’re building that good relationship. Knowing that we’re coming to the table to help collaborate and plan something, not that you’re going to hand us something and we have to digest it. Those days are gone. We know who we are; we don’t need someone to tell us who we are or where we came from.”

“Ecological resources are cultural resources.”

Cassandra Atencio, Tribal Historic Preservation Office Deputy Officer

The Southern Ute cultural tradition is as alive as the plants beloved by the people. The tribe is currently seeing a wave of cultural revitalization through their Montessori school and summer camps, which teach in the Ute language on ancestral lands. Briggs says they are “trying to enhance educational opportunities in the field, learning the information where it should be passed down.” Atencio adds, “it’s by doing.”

That ancestral land includes Western. “Where you’re at in Gunnison – on that W, the civilization that is up there, we are descendants of those people,” Atencio says, continuing, “People need to remember that we’re still connected to those landscapes that we were removed from. That’s where our ancestors still lie. Our people are still out there. You find them with inadvertent discoveries, development. That’s trauma; they were put there for a reason.”

There are many opportunities for Ecology students to involve Ute experts in their work around Western. “We want to collaborate and be good neighbors to each other. It’s possible to do that; it’s just building those relationships,” Atencio says. Briggs highlights that the agency engages in strategic partnerships to support their work. “Currently we have some 389 ongoing NHPA projects that run for years or decades, and over 150 NAGPRA cases that we’re working on closing, and there’s only 3 of us. But these conversations are good because it’s all about aligning with like-minded people and allies.” 

This work could include assisting with an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for NEPA analysis, and could even go deeper. “Conducting an environmental assessment isn’t always the right way to do things. I think there are changes that need to occur on a legislative level and impact the legal processes that are currently used,” Briggs says. “Hopefully people in this conversation can start making those changes on their own when they get to that professional level.”

Appropriately, as the lecture closed Briggs remarked, “There’s no ‘goodbye’ in our language, just ‘see you later.’”

The next speaker in the Inclusive Ecology lecture series will be Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a Master’s in Environmental Management (MEM) student from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. Regina will speak about natural resources and their management in the context of Ute culture on Tuesday, March 8 at 6 p.m. via Zoom.