After more than 28 years working for the federal government, Northern Ute elder Roland McCook has finally decided to hang it up and retire. These days, McCook devotes his time to organizing a powwow he founded nearly three years ago.
McCook, the 70-year-old scion of the late Ute Chief Ouray, is also committed to spending more time fishing throughout Utah and Colorado, but with his powwow cresting the horizon, those leisurely hours are far and few between.
“I (fish) when I can,” he quipped. “Right now, I pack my fishing gear with me whenever I travel.”
McCook, a former Northern Ute tribal chairman, travels to promote and raise funds for the third annual Montrose Indian Nations Powwow scheduled for September 21-23 in Montrose, Colorado.
“Every two weeks we’re having meetings on the powwow itself,” he said. “We’re trying to raise a little money for it, too. The latest thing I’ve done is contact the Aztec dancers.”
Last December, McCook concluded a two-term stint as vice chair of the Native American Repatriation Review Committee at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. where he worked with fellow committee members to repatriate Native American remains and a laundry list of other indigenous belongings back to their respective tribes.
Although McCook, a member of the Red Lake People and one of only a handful of American Indians living in Montrose, referred to his recent departure from the Smithsonian as “bittersweet,” he said that he’s quite satisfied with his accomplishments, which includes the repatriation of a lock of Sitting Bull’s hair and a pair of his leggings back to his great, great grandson.
“(It was) one of the most gratifying things I did while with the Smithsonian,” McCook said. “It was gratifying to make the system work.”
John F.C. Johnson, vice president of cultural resources for the Chugach Alaska Corporation and former Smithsonian committee member, lauded McCook for his “indelible” contributions to the committee as well as his efforts to help not only the Ute people, but all American Indians.
“Besides just being an Indian from one tribe, he’s real active in ceremonies all across the United States with other tribes,” Johnson said. “He’s real active in the powwow circuit and the network they have, so it’s not like he just deals with one group in one spot. He works with people all across the country.”
Johnson said McCook brought to the repatriation committee an imperative indigenous perspective and “that real core gut feeling that’s so important.”
McCook said that while he was vice chair of the repatriation committee in December of 2004, he participated in a 15-part consortium that laid claim to 341 unidentified Native Americans bones.
According to McCook, the Smithsonian could not classify each of the 341 deceased as belonging to one particular tribe. The bones, he said, could only be scientifically identified as Natives Americans who had resided near or on the Front Range of Colorado.
“We had them repatriated and (discretely) reburied on October 12, 2000, somewhere up on the east face of the Rockies, near a reservoir,” he added.
McCook hopes the Smithsonian Institute will continue to work to reconnect Native Americans with their ancestors and their ancestor’s effects.
“In general, I think the Smithsonian should always have the intent to repatriate,” McCook said. “They should put as much value into Native American voices and traditional ways as they do the sciences.”
With the Smithsonian in his rearview, McCook has his sights set on the Montrose powwow. McCook said he’s picking up the pace to prepare for a veteran honoring to be held at the powwow during grand entry.
“(That) Friday night, we’re going to be honoring all veterans, no matter what nation you are,” he said.
McCook said last September the powwow drew more than 125 dancers, seven drums and over 41 vendors. “I’m expecting an increase for sure,” McCook said excitedly. “It’s five bucks per person, and dancers and drum groups are free.”
McCook, whose grandson and granddaughter recently completed tours in Iraq, said he now spends “almost everyday” in preparation for the powwow and veteran honoring.
“It will be a special evening,” he said.