When I first moved to Pagosa, I was so curious. Learning from everyone around me I truly wondered how things worked here. I’ve always lived in some proximately to American Indian reservations and grew up knowing Blackfoot and Lakota people living near South Dakota. I looked up information about Pagosa—first the trails, then old newspaper articles, editorial pieces by two gentlemen who maintain their own news sources. Then, I looked up the word Pagosa itself and thought it was a Spanish word for “yellow pine” as Alamosa was the Spanish word for “little cottonwood.”
I moved here for the trails, for my job, and was able to explore last summer. I took in the area bounded on the north—the Weminuche Wilderness. Hiked up to meet the Contintental Divide from Four Mile, then later in fall hiked from Wolf Creek Pass on the divide down to Archuleta Trail to meet up at Big Meadows. Drove to Platoro near the Colorado-New Mexico border, and spent days in the San Juan Wilderness running from the front porch of a friend’s house. Haven’t made to Yellow Jacket Pass on the west but I live here now. There is still time.
I’ve soaked in most commercial and hidden hot springs in the area, barring Rainbow Hot Springs which people will say is a 5 mile hike, but I’ve heard 8. Yet, I still am a newbie, curious, wondering. The skies here remind me of Wyoming and the clouds are wonderful right before the afternoon storm of the mountains that I grew accustomed to at 7200 feet in Laramie, WY. Sometimes, the clouds reach down like fingers pouring rain on mountain meadows in the distance. Turns out, American Indian (Navajo) men and women have their hair long because it symbolizes the falling rain bringing sustenance and watering plants, herbs, crops.
I started attending town council and remember one meeting where low-income housing was struck down but a $70,000 overlook structure was approved near the bridge at the center of town. Perfect for the tourists to stand under jutting over the San Juan River and The Springs—the largest resort in town with over 25 pools. Nice move for tourism, Pagosa. I was a little upset that there is a slight housing crisis here caused by rentiers and lack of funds for subsidized housing but yesterday heard a bit more of the story. Many of the lands are owned or homesteaded by Spanish and American Indian people To develop some lands or put in easements for trails would displace peoples who have been displaced so many times. I am still learning.
There’s many story on the websites highlighting Pagosa but it seems that only the Anglo (French, English) stories are told bringing the forefront stories of mountain men highlighting the tales of the military expeditions and beaver trapping. I heard these same stories in Wyoming fourth grade social studies, gnawing on pemmican probably watching “Dances With Wolves” so we could all feel good about the interactions between pale face (white people) and American Indians. There are two main tribes in the area—Navajo and Southern Ute. I found a story about the warring between the two tribes. The story that goes into museums dotting the main highway 160 and highlights the towns cash cow—hot springs.
This is the story that they want you to hear:
There’s a tale of a fight to the death between the Utes and the Navajo to determine the ownership of the springs. Confrontation had marked these two tribes relationship for many years. Both recognized the San Juan River as a dividing line between their nations, but the springs was still a source of contention.
They decided each tribe would select one man to represent each side. The dispute would be settled by whoever emerged victorious, and the winner would win the possession of the Great Pagosa Hot Spring.
The Navajos selected a huge man who was famous for his fighting ability. Colonel Albert Pfeiffer volunteered to fight for the Utes. He was an Indian agent, and a friend of Col. Kit Carson, as well as an enemy of the Navajo and an adopted member of the Utes (having married into the tribe). His one request was that he could elect the weapons they would use, and he were chose Bowie knives.
They met unclothed, except for their breechcloths, and fought with one hand tied behind their backs. The Indian had the advantage in size, and the Colonel knew it. Suddenly, however, when the Colonel was some feet from his adversary, he made a very quick movement with his arm, his knife left his hand and was buried in the enemy’s heart. The Utes were victorious, the Navajo withdrew, and never more did they lay claim to the “Great Pahgosa.”
But, there’s another story.
The war was not occurring so much between the Southern Utes and Navajo but the Navajo and white settlers. The Utes and Navajo were ancient enemies, from what I’ve heard, but I can’t find much information on the internet other than the story above. According the Southern Ute tribe website, the Ute people are the oldest residents of Colorado, inhabiting the mountains and vast areas of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Eastern Nevada, Northern New Mexico and Arizona. According to tribal history handed down from generation to generation, the people lived here since the beginning of time.
Navajo is pronounced “NAH-vuh-ho.” This spelling came from Spanish– you can sometimes see the same name spelled “Navaho” instead. It comes from a Pueblo Indian word for “planted fields” or “farmlands.” Think about the clouds and the long hair—these were people who cultivated crops in a place not known for the best growing season. The Pueblo Indians probably gave them this name because unlike their relatives the Apaches, the Navajos were farmers who lived in settled villages. Traditionally the Navajos called themselves Dine’é or just Diné (which means “the people”), but today most Navajo people also use the word “Navajo” themselves, especially when they are speaking English.
From the stories I heard, the Navajo were here long ago, and Pagosa does not mean healing or boiling waters but rather comes from the Navajo word “Pagosah” (although other accounts say it’s a Southern Ute word—depends on who you talk to) which means stinky waters. The Navajo considered these lands sacred and white settlers kinda liked it, too. The account I’ve heard is not that each tribe sent a representative but rather the military men transplanted the Southern Ute here, knowing full well they were considered an enemy of the Navajo. Make it easier on the American government by letting them kill each other off. Cultural warfare. Scorched earth on sacred land.
Folks seem to believe that white supremacy is a modern day myth and racist ideology of hatred promoted by marginal extremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nations. Often overlooked and neglected in this view are the structural inequalities that ensure the continued supremacy of whites over non-whites in all facets of social life. Like putting two warring tribes in the same place. Only advertising the stories that bring more white folks from the south to enjoy the land and dump dollars in a community that does have its issues with poverty.
I still stare at the clouds every day from my back porch thinking about hair like rain. I haven’t cut my hair in years and now I will look at town council a bit differently. Seek out the old families of color who have been here forever to hear the stories, to protect traditions that aren’t necessarily mine, but that I still hold in my heart and I learn about my new home. This year I’m trying to grow a garden like I’ve grown my hair using the rain that forms over the San Juan mountains and recollect the adage that folks come to Pagosa to “heal, hide, or take a hike.” I’m here to heal. I’m here to learn. I’m here to be.
“Don’t be ashamed to weep; ’tis right to grieve. Tears are only water, and flowers, trees, and fruit cannot grow without water. But there must be sunlight also. A wounded heart will heal in time, and when it does, the memory and love of our lost ones is sealed inside to comfort us.”
― Brian Jacques, Taggerung