Letter to the Editor: A Response to "Ute Prayer Trees"

by Tim J. Myers '75

As a CC grad, a working writer, and an academic, I have to applaud Nathan Goodman for the great energy, good will, and cultural respect he put into "Ute Prayer Trees," which I read on Cipher's website. But there's a lot of one-sidedness in his piece, a great deal of declaration without sufficient evidence, and some assumptions that manifest themselves in simplistic self-righteousness. 

Goodman's piece is basically an attack on John Anderson, former El Paso County sheriff, for Anderson's historical work on Ute "culturally modified trees" of the Pikes Peak Region and beyond. I contacted Anderson some time ago for a book I was working on, and am grateful to him for his generous support, as well as for connecting me with Ute elder Dr. Jefferson. I recently met Anderson face-to-face for the first time, and over the course of our intense five-hour discussion at Fox Run Park, I saw that many of Goodman's arguments are quite weak, or worse. Some are even mean-spirited.

"Anderson is essentially marketing the cultural knowledge of an oppressed group to a mainstream audience," Goodman writes. But the same could be said for any historian who works outside his or her own culture. Historians often write books, create videos, etc., which are then for sale; would Goodman object to, say, an Australian writing about East Indian history? (India, of course, was long subject to brutal imperialism.) Goodman goes on to say that Anderson's work is "problematic in and of itself because the sale of traditional practices to non-members has the potential to reveal 'taboo' knowledge and cheapen ancestral teachings by presenting over-simplified histories. Plus, it puts this knowledge in the hands of people who are unaware of its larger cultural context, and are therefore more liable to manipulate and distort what they learn." 

Whoa—isn't that potentially the case for any history? Human beings stereotype each other all the time, and misuse culture—but that's no reason to stop writing history. To improve relations between white and Native Americans, we should stop trying to understand Native Americans? What does the average American understand about the classical Greeks, for example? Is that reason enough to stop all non-Greeks from exploring that culture? And of course Anderson isn't "selling" Ute traditional practices.

Goodman also states flat out that scientific evidence doesn't back up Anderson's claims. During the five hours I spent with John, I heard a great deal of evidence—none of which made it into Goodman's article, despite the fact that John laid it out for him during the interview. If anyone wants to see the evidence, I suggest they contact John—he's more than willing to share, and he's got plenty. It's one thing to question someone's evidence; a big claim requires lots of it. It's another to suggest, as Goodman does, that Anderson has played fast and loose with evidence. That's a deeply damning charge—and simply not true.

Equally troubling is Goodman's assertion that Anderson misused FEMA funds for his work on the trees. I know for a fact that when Anderson and Goodman met, Anderson gave Goodman contact information for the El Paso County Parks official who could easily discount this charge. Goodman never made the call, since if he had, he wouldn't have printed this falsehood.

Another strange argument from Goodman concerns disagreements among the Utes about the prayer trees. Goodman says Anderson "and his ilk" are challenging "Indigenous political and cultural sovereignty." That's a very big claim.  He goes on to declare that it's "not our [white people's] place to decide 'which Indian knows more about their culture.'" And yet the whole point of his piece is to side with Utes who disagree with Anderson and Dr. Jefferson! This is an utter contradiction. Goodman wisely decries the terrible, centuries-old pattern of white people telling Native people what's what. But then he wades in too and opines on a Ute vs. Ute disagreement—even after he himself has said "it can be difficult to decide which Indigenous voice to listen to. The fear that Indigenous government officials do not accurately represent their people’s cultural history is entirely valid." He can't have it both ways.

And consider how odd this further contradiction is: "Taking the word of official tribal representatives is essential. They have been placed in those positions because they know their tribe’s history and traditions." The over-romanticizing of Native peoples is often part of racism against them—but Goodman somehow believes that politics in the Ute world are perfect? Would he apply the same standard to our national politics? We should follow everything Trump says, since he was "placed in that position" because he's so knowledgeable about our history and traditions? There's a sickening irony for you. I don't think Goodman thought this through. The essence of anti-racism is to recognize that the Other is just as human as you are, for good and ill.

Goodman even says, "The problem is that Jefferson is in no way an official representative of any Ute tribe." This plays directly into the old Euro-American error of treatying only with "chiefs" as sole representatives of tribes, when political decision-making in most Native groups was far more complicated than that. And here's a white guy telling a Ute elder he doesn't represent his own people. That's not interfering with Indigenous culture? Let's not forget either that Dr. Jefferson is also a linguistics Ph.D. who spent four years at the Smithsonian helping them catalogue their Native American collection. That detail didn't make the article either.

Consider too that Goodman asked Anderson to ask Dr. Jefferson for an interview, which Anderson procured—but when Goodman actually visited the reservation, he never contacted him.

Goodman's armchair-psychologist words about Anderson may apply more accurately to Goodman himself: "Underneath this general feeling … is a sense of pride—of feeling 'cultured' or living on the 'right side of history' … It provokes a feeling of exceptionalism, a feeling that can become addictive."  There's an air of self-congratulation here, and it may have caused Goodman to reach deeply negative conclusions about Anderson without due diligence.

Here's another surprising contradiction. Near the end of the piece we get the seeming humility of "Ultimately, I am no expert on Indigenous culture, nor am I a professional ethnographer. I researched this topic intensively over the summer, but I have no right to say whether anything is or is not culturally significant to a particular group." And yet the subtitle of the piece is "The revival of an Indigenous tradition that never existed." That's a pretty clear judgment. A sentence later he contradicts himself once more: "But the point at which those trees are forcibly inserted into another people’s culture and pasted into their history is when things have to stop." So he does believe in opining on what's culturally significant to the Utes. 

And the way Goodman tells it, Dr. Jefferson is utterly alone in asserting the historical importance of the trees. Somebody better tell the Native staff of the The Southern Ute Drum, a tribal community newspaper; they wrote positively about "spirit trees" in this issue.

Don't get me wrong. I share Goodman's horror at the long history of oppression and degradation of Indigenous peoples in what's now the US, not to mention around the world. And I think Goodman is highly commendable in his desire to be part of the solution—in his questioning of his own and others' privilege—in his keen sense of how power differentials have played such a destructive role in this history. As a white American, I'm ashamed of so much of what we've done, and I too want to be part of the solution. So does John Anderson, by the way, whose genuine commitment to Ute culture runs deep, as does his unbending habit of looking to the Utes themselves as the final arbiters and interpreters of their own traditions. 

I also understand that there's been a tremendous colonialist tendency to violate Native culture through misrepresentation. There absolutely is widespread cheapening of Indigenous culture, racist reduction of Indigenous religion, hucksterism when it comes to artifacts and cultural practices. At the same time, "cultural appropriation" is a very vague and loaded phrase to bring to bear. Do we really want a world in which cultures can't freely borrow from each other? Does Goodman believe that no cultural sharing whatsoever between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is ever legitimate?

He even brings up "intellectual property." Think of where that would take us, applied in this way. If you sell boomerangs, do you need to pay a license fee to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples? But there's a hitch: the oldest boomerang known was discovered in what's now Poland. So do Indigenous Australians have to pay the Poles? Intellectual property is, after all, a legal and commercial category; think of the endless court cases this would create! And although I'm the first to insist on respect for and knowledge of Native traditions, absolute condemnation of "cultural appropriation" is neither realistic nor fair. Would Goodman condemn, say, younger Utes for making original hip-hop recordings, since they're not African American? Of course he wouldn't. Cultural borrowing is usually a good thing, and it's also natural and inevitable.

I'm not a historian or archaeologist or forester or dendrochronologist. I'm a senior lecturer in English at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, and a widely published writer, with a deep interest in history, including that of the Utes, a great people who are far less-known than their many accomplishments warrant. I can't claim, on the basis of any scientific expertise, that John Anderson and Dr. Jefferson are right about the trees. However, I've been through a lot of their evidence, and I've heard John speak at length, and his historian bona fides impressed me as much as his openness to Ute culture did.  At this point, I think he's right about the trees. If I saw evidence to the contrary, I'd change my mind in a heartbeat.

I'm also a proud CC alum. And in my writing courses my professors insisted on backing claims with effective evidence, whether factual, analytical, or a combination of the two. I don't see that kind of evidence in Goodman's piece.

The writer is a lecturer at Santa Clara University and a 1975 Colorado College alumnus.

Cipher welcomes letters to the editor. Letters may be edited for length and adherence to our style guidelines. Submit to s_fleming@coloradocollege.edu.