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Unitarians worked to 'save' Ute Indians

In the 1870s, the American Unitarian Association oversaw a Ute reservation in Colorado.
By Sonja L. Cohen
Winter 2009 11.1.09

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J. Nelson Trask and Ute Indians (Courtesy of Fort Lewis College, Center of Southwest Studies)

The Rev. J. Nelson Trask (lower left) was one of four Unitarian ministers who worked with the Utes at Los Pinos, Colorado, between 1870 and 1878. (Courtesy of Fort Lewis College, Center of Southwest Studies)

In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant invited Protestant denominations to take over the management of American Indian reservations and agencies. His hope was that this move would cut down on reported government corruption while simultaneously helping to “civilize” the Indians. The American Unitarian Association (AUA) accepted charge of the district covering the Colorado reservation occupied by various tribes of the Ute, consisting of about 8,000 people—a fact that had been almost entirely forgotten until recently.

At the UUA’s 2007 General Assembly delegates called for the Association and its member organizations to research their history and “uncover our links and complicity with the genocide of native peoples; with slavery and the slave-based economy; and with all types of racial, ethnic, and cultural oppression, past and present, toward the goal of accountability through acknowledgment, apology, repair, and reconciliation.”

The Rev. David Pettee, the UUA’s director of ministerial credentialing, was thinking about the resolution and the General Assembly to be held in Utah in 2009 when he recalled a brief reference to the AUA/Ute history in George Willis Cooke’s Unitarianism in America. Pettee and Ted Fetter, board president of the UUA’s Metropolitan New York District, began extensive research into the history.

They found that four Unitarian ministers—John S. Littlefield, J. Nelson Trask, Edward H. Danforth, and Henry F. Bond—were assigned to work with the Utes on two agencies in the reservation, one at White River in the north and one at Los Pinos in the south. Their primary mission, as reported in the American Unitarian Association’s 1877 Yearbook, was to maintain a “strictly honest administration of government affairs” and “to meet the Indians in a humane, Christian spirit, saving them from trickery, robbery, intemperance, and other vices of frontier life; and to present to them the better phases of a Christian civilization.”

The Unitarians were, as Fetter described them during a 2009 GA workshop, “largely failures” in their effort to bring the Utes into the dominant culture. Their actions were well intentioned, but ultimately unwelcome and unproductive. “They were ineffective,” said Fetter. “They didn’t begin to understand the culture of the people they were working with.” A succession of agents failed, he said, both in terms of government policy at the time and by participating in what we see in hindsight as cultural imperialism.

But the serious trouble really started, Fetter said, when Danforth was replaced by Agent Nathan Meeker (not a Unitarian) who came to the White River Agency in 1878 with “a Utopian vision of turning the Indians into farmers.” Despite documented evidence of poor farming conditions in the area, Meeker kept pushing the Utes to embrace agriculture. Initially the Utes tolerated Meeker, but tensions eventually erupted and the military was sent out to handle the situation. A battle ensued, a number of people on both sides died, and Meeker was murdered. In response, Congress passed the Ute Removal Act, which in 1881 forcibly relocated the Utes to an Eastern Utah reservation, far from the land with which they had felt spiritually connected.

“It’s a sad story,” Fetter said, “and I believe the Unitarians had a part in it. Not as bad people but as people who didn’t know what to do to represent the interests of the Utes.”

During the opening worship service of GA 2009, UUA President William G. Sinkford offered a formal apology to the Utes on behalf of the Association for past crimes against their people. “We participated, however ineptly, in a process that stole your land and forced a foreign way of life on you,” he said. “We ask for your forgiveness, and we promise to stand with you as you chart your way forward.” Forrest Cuch, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe and executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, and Ute elder Clifford Duncan attended the worship service. Cuch accepted Sinkford’s apology and welcomed the General Assembly to Utah, and Duncan offered a prayer in the Ute language.


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