Tomorrow is Saturday. She will rise early to go high in the mountains, a place called Lake Canyon way up in the Uintah’s South of the Duchesne River. The summer comes slow here, the snow stays long, and about this time of the year it is time for cattle to graze.
She will wake her husband and son and tell them let's get ready to go. A hundred and seventy-nine head she has, eight bulls and nine horses. The roads up the mountain fall away into deep ruts but she said we will get up there, time for Indian cattle, them cows to graze way up high.
Way back in 1897, they came with their horses, white men who said this is a good place and took the land, the mountains, the forests and trees, the lakes of sweet water and tall grass and said this is the Uinta Forest, named for them Indians who used to camp there, but are not there anymore.
They live in the valley below on the rez, now, but the boundary line includes the forest in some old books. It says, this is your land from Mountaintop to Mountaintop. This is what was promised the Utes way back then.
The United States said, We will use your forest but we will remember it was your land, and you and your people can graze your animals up here, there is enough room for 2,000 or so, and so he made the words on paper back in 1906.
There came a time when the grass was lean and the cows many, more white farmers and cattlemen came into the valley, and they said we need to graze with your herds up in the forest.
So the U.S. said, their forest service, let us borrow your grazing land, there is enough to go around, just for year or so, which lasted 7 winters and 8 summers. The Indians took their cows up high and found that there was only short grass and other cattle with strange brands.
Where shall we put our animals they said to the forest people? The forest people said, we looked at the place and since you have not been here for a long time we said to ourselves the Indians don't want this place any more they have other places and so we put those with a greater need for feed on this land.
Look there is still more than enough grass for you and they pointed to the mountains to the North and said go there. It was about 1938 or so, a generation had lost the land to the south.
Over the years, the grass grew and then came the forest men, we need to borrow some of your grazing for just a short while and so they took the land away from those Indians with faith in the words written in paper from 1906 and said our father in Washington will look out for us.
It was after the big war, maybe 1949 when they found out that the borrowed grass was gone forever. So it went day after day, month after month and year after year, until 1969 when Lake Canyon came back to them, for just a little bit, it was theirs but for a small fee, they said.
We know about what we said in 1906, and just to let you know we see that there were words written back then, but we are letting you know that we agree with you that the words are there but that we say we agree to disagree. The Indians asked what does that mean?
The forest men said it means we will look to the wisdom of our people in Washington to say what is right in the way of working the land with you, bring your cattle and use it there, just sign this paper and pay a little bit to help out the money pot in Washington. So the tribe said ok we will follow along and put our trust in these words.
It is May and the time has gone by, in the old days they hitched the wagons and brought food, the family gathered taking their horses with them and made camp moving those lazy cows up the mountain.
The Indian woman stood there and said to me, “I remember my grandmother cooking for us, and we would dance and play riding horses, all my uncles came and worked hard, but at night we would sing and play and listen to the stories about soldier summit how the cavalry put those old Indians high on the mountain, a campsite that was so cold by fall that nothing could live and so the old Indians slipped away. Look up there to the South on the Mountain beyond the trees, a small valley that is the place where it happened they say.”
It is where she learned to ride a horse, to stand in the saddle, where she dreamed she would name her child a long time before he was ever born for the way the sun burst over the mountain and rushed into the valley like a charging warrior racing to the other side of the valley, he was a dog soldier but when he was born she called him Thundershield and he stood there a short ways away listening to his mother talk about him years ago at the place on the mountain.
Her eyes were gleaming, and they were bright. She stood there with her long black hair and said we will move the cattle up there and camp this weekend like we used to. She had made good for the journey.
She woke up early, way before dawn and with her man and his cousins, her sons and aunts and uncles headed those cattle to travel miles across the valley and up the mountain where the roads are steep and gullies deep and wide, using chains and come-a-longs to keep the trucks from falling down the mountain.
They will get there tomorrow evening, partway. I stood there and listened to her tell it to me, the way they would go. She was born to ride a horse, an Indian cow woman, ready for anything.
I stood there and listened to them, but I knew as I stood there that the forest men, from the United States, had said, the Indians don't need that place anymore and so we have others who need it more, and so they gave the forest service grazing permit, the one given for the forest on the reservation boundary to a white man.
I listened to her and then said, I heard the permit is not yours anymore. She stood there, her eyes flashing and looked at me and said no one has said it to us and we are going up there like we have always done and that is what we are doing in the morning.
I said maybe you should check first and she said, it is our land, our forest and the bones of my fathers are buried there and we are going, and so she walked away from me and will make ready to push her cattle up the mountain and in a small valley way up high in the Uintah’s at a place called Lake Canyon in the Uinta forest will see if the words written in 1906 are true or whether they are a lie. So it goes on the Uintah and Ouray.
The forest service has revoked the Lake Canyon permit that belonged to the Ute Tribe and has given it to non-Indians despite an agreement made with them that this would never happen to their grazing area in this rough canyon country used by their people for centuries.
Johnny Rustywire is Folded Rocks Clan People on his mother’s side, and born for Tsinahbiltnii, the Mountain People Clan on his father’s side. He comes from Toadlena-Two Gray Hills, New Mexico, where the mountain is cracked and the water flows. He is a father of six and grandfather of 12. He attended Indian boarding schools and grew up on the Navajo Reservation, and has been married to the same woman for 40 years, a Ute from Fort Duchesne, Utah.