Through contemporary Native approaches and reinvigorated tradition, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Northeastern Utah is improving the health of its members—many of whom battle diabetes and other modern health threats.
“We’re finding that what is happening on most reservations is that people have pretty much lost hope that they can get well; they have no realization that they do have control and are responsible for their health,” said Forrest Cuch, who is spearheading revitalization at Fort Duchesne, headquarters of the Ute Indian Tribe.
Cuch serves as CEO of Ute Tribal Enterprises, which comprises non-petroleum related businesses on the 1.3 million-acre reservation, home to about half of the 3,100-plus tribal members. He is the former director of Utah’s Division of Indian Affairs from 1998 to 2011, and he co-founded the nonprofit Rising American Indian Nations (RAIN) in 2007.
As part of Cuch’s health initiative, Ute Tribal Enterprises, RAIN and the Salt Lake City-based RVC Construction have restored the Ute Plaza Supermarket, which now offers healthier food options, and refurbished Ute Crossing Lanes Family Center, a bowling and recreation complex. Cuch is also inspiring tribal members to reclaim their traditional Horse Dance Celebration. Grand re-openings took place at the Ute Plaza and Ute Crossing Lanes, both located on the reservation, on July 28.
“The main emphasis is on health,” Cuch said of the supermarket. “We included a healthy food section and information about healthy food in the store.”
Local, grass-fed beef from the tribe’s 450-plus Angus herd is available at the grocery store. The supermarket sources its bison meat from four select breeds of 700 buffalo located on two Utah-based ranches, one Great Plains ranch, and Woodland buffalo arrive from the eastern states. In addition, elk meat is sometimes available.
In regards to fry bread, Cuch said the tribe is experimenting with using a multi-grain flour cooked in coconut oil. Currently in testing stages, “people have accepted it,” Cuch said.
Even the 100-seat restaurant at the remodeled Ute Lanes Crossing Family Center encourages a return to the “way we used to eat,” Cuch noted. “We’ll serve our own grass-fed beef, trout and native wild rice,” as well as wild berries and fresh vegetables.
Cuch hopes the bowling alley and recreation center will promote exercise. “Besides eating better, we should start exercising more—walking more, preferably one hour three times a week. Stay active,” Cuch advises his people. “It’s very simple, but requires commitment.”
Mental health goes hand in hand with physical activity, according to Cuch. And mental health can be achieved by reconnecting tribal members with their traditional ways. One of his goals is to revive the Horse Dance Celebration, which honors the role of the horse in the lives of the Ute people.
“What we’re trying to do is restore the horse to our people,” Cuch said. “We were one of the first to acquire the horse from the Spanish.”
On August 1-2, the tribe held a skills demonstration on working with wild mustangs and hands-on training workshops for respectful treatment and riding of horses in general.
Cuch said the emphasis is not necessarily on riding but on using the relationship with the horse to help recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a purpose for which horses have been used elsewhere.
“We still suffer trauma from colonization and the brutal taking of our land,” he said. Cuch’s band, the Uinta, was displaced from central Utah north to Fort Duchesne, while other Ute bands were moved from their traditional lands, relocated in different areas of Utah and Colorado.
“Horses are good for us—they join with other traditional things, like the Sun Dance,” which was introduced to them by the Eastern Shoshone, he said. The Horse Dance and Sun Dance are not directly related, but both have to do with spiritual energy, Cuch said. Similarly, he wants tribal members to practice the Bear Dance, which originated among the Ute people as a spring renewal ceremony. It is now “more of a social dance,” Cuch said.
Other cultural activities he hopes tribal members will engage in more regularly include hunting and fishing, berry-picking and participating in pow wows. He also hopes elders will continue to teach children traditional skills like wilderness survival, how to build a fire without matches, how to make rope or cordage out of natural plants, and how to make a flute using wood.
According to Cuch, maintaining tradition may prove even more important in the near future if oil and gas extraction increases on the reservation, drawing an influx of workers to the area. The Uintah and Ouray Reservation sits atop rich oil and gas reserves, which are tapped by the tribe’s own Ute Energy enterprise. If expansion occurs, there may be more funds for the health initiative: “We want them [industry workers] to buy our groceries and to use the bowling alley,” Cuch said.
According to Cuch, tribes must spearhead efforts to revive their own health and traditional customs.
“Mainstream America does not care for them [tribes]. They’re only out to make a profit, and they don’t care if [Native Americans] drink themselves to death on pop or alcohol,” Cuch said. “We should go back to an older way of life and stop buying into commercial media and corrupt corporations. All they’re interested in is making money.”