Through centuries, Northern Arapaho hunters tracked deer, bison and antelope across the plains at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in present-day eastern Colorado, where tribal members who lived there are remembered in Denver with streets named after Chief Little Raven and others.
Today, Arapaho people return to their homelands and its sacred places: “Not too far from here there are important sites,” said Nelson White, keeper of the sacred bundle of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. “North, tipi rings. Nearby, that medicine wheel. Medicines in the mountains to the west. And the (Valmont) butte itself is a marker where the people used to go.”
Other tribal nations crossed or lived in the area, including the Oglala Lakota, one of whose members, Robert Cross, found that today Valmont Butte, east of Boulder, carries a modern hazard in the form of waste from industrial uses.
Cross, a spiritual leader, conducted purification lodges high atop the butte—a volcanic formation rising sharply from the plains— until he learned what now contaminates the former site of vision quests and other ceremonies.
After Native people moved from the area following the gold rush 150 years ago, the butte and its immediate surroundings were the site of an ore milling complex that processed gold and, later, fluorspar, used in jewelry and glass manufacture, and over the years other industries followed.
The city of Boulder purchased Valmont Butte in 2000 and this year local government approved cleanup at the site, which will involve removing more than 500 cubic yards of contaminated material. The city proposes to remediate soils and tailings ponds containing heavy metals, including lead and arsenic and “low-level naturally occurring radioactive materials.”
Too late, however, for Cross, who is convinced that in conducting purification ceremonies for more than a decade he, his family, and others who used the sweat lodge were subjected to toxic, perhaps radioactive, soils and basalt rocks, the latter used on the butte and sought over the years for use in lodges elsewhere because of their stability under intense heat.
Cross, leader of the Wanbli Sina (Eagle Robe) Sun Dance, said the butte was a ceremonial site for the Arapaho people and the Lakota termed it cankahu, or backbone, for the small volcanic formations along ridge areas. The formation still produces volcanic emissions he feels may be toxic.Cross first began gathering basalt rock from the butte in the 1970s and in the 1990s started conducting lodges there. His young daughters played in dirt piles on the butte and people attended the lodge year after year. He stopped using the site about four years ago.
“I’m still worried about it,” he said by telephone, describing the swollen hands of one daughter and heart murmurs of the other, as well as mysterious rashes and blotching suffered by the family. “I’ve had it tested and they have detected nothing. But a lot of this stuff can’t be detected for 10, 20 years or more. There can be kidney or liver damage and I’m worried about my daughters 20 years from now.”
Describing the apathy he said he has encountered from the American Indian Movement, a tribal consortium, and others “who got scared and pulled out,” Cross said he would “really like to find a way to spur some interest in people to do something about this before they take it (toxic waste) all out of there.”
Cross said Sabrina Forrest, an Environmental Protection Agency Region 8 site assessment manager, told him not to worry about the site’s toxicity, “but at the same time they said every time we were around the lodge we should put our clothes in a bag, wash them—but not at home and not in a washing machine that would be used by others—and to bag shoes and store them in a different part of the house or area and preferably outdoors.”
He termed the existence of toxic materials on the butte “a national tragedy—they didn’t tell Indian people about it. And other ceremonial sites in Colorado are contaminated.” He cited the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Denver, a former nuclear weapons production area that he described as a traditional Sun Dance site.
As the butte is cleaned up, an archaeologist will be present during any excavation as will a monitor for the Northern Arapaho. As part of approving the plan to remove toxic waste from the butte, the Boulder County Board of Commissioners recently required the City of Boulder to apply to the county for landmarking the 100-acre area an archaeological site within a year of the cleanup’s completion and to landmark the mining/industrial area at its base as a historic site within four months of finishing the project.
“Landmarking will offer some—though not complete—protection for the butte. At least it requires the city to go through more processes to do anything long-term, like leasing or selling it,” said Lori Windle, White Earth Anishinaabe, a founding board member of the Valmont Butte Heritage Alliance (VBHA).
Potential future uses for the butte include construction of a mining museum. Besides the VBHA, other organizations supporting the butte’s preservation include the Valmont Pioneer Cemetery Association, the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, and Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund, one of whose attorneys, Steven Moore, has been instrumental in sacred sites protection, including Valmont Butte.
The butte was named after the nearby community of Valmont, whose residents in 1865 combined “valley” and “mountain” to create its name. The town was a stagecoach station, a railway stop, and, in 1923, home to the “largest industrial project in the history of Boulder County,” with construction of the nearby Valmont Power Plant, according to the Boulder History Museum. The community itself has transitioned into its present form as a Boulder neighborhood.