A view of the San Luis Valley


Vision and Visibility

During this Native American Heritage Month, Kathryn Redhorse, director of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, reflects on 2020 as a potential turning point in American Indian and Alaska Native communities’ long struggle for visibility, acknowledgment, and social justice.

Many strive for perfect vision. We wear glasses and glide contacts over our eyes to obtain 20/20 vision. With 20/20 vision, we believe we can see things clearly and honestly.

2020 has provided new insights into our world. We clearly see that a pandemic can disrupt our way of life; we clearly see how we are dependent on one another for physical health, mental health, economic and educational support; we clearly see our priorities, and we are continuing to move towards seeing how social and racial injustice is rampant throughout our society. 

The American Indian/Alaska Native community has long known the battle for social justice, working to promote our visibility and acknowledgment of Tribal Nations and sovereignty for generations.

Although we were the first peoples on this land, now called the United States of America, we were the last to be recognized as citizens of this country. In 1924, the United States finally acknowledged American Indian/Alaska Natives as American citizens with the Indian Citizenship Act. However, even as this Act was passed, not all states granted American Indians/Alaska Natives the right to vote. It took until 1962 for Utah to grant voting rights to American Indians/Alaska Natives. Although we are citizens of our Tribal Nations, we are also citizens of this country. We deserve a seat at all decision making tables, including policy development, legislation, and funding streams.

In order to be at the table, local and federal governments—and really all of society—need to acknowledge Tribal sovereignty and the contributions American Indian/Alaska Native communities make everyday. In order to make a strong and thriving nation, we must learn both the history of the Indigenous peoples as well as the present day impacts of Tribal Nations. In the year 2020, Tribal Nations and the American Indian/Alaska Native community need to continue the path of becoming more visible.

For example, a record breaking six American Indians and Native Hawaiians were elected to the United States House of Representatives. They include Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk) in Kansas, Tom Cole (Chickasaw) and Markwayne Mullin (Cherokee) in Oklahoma, Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and Yvette Herrell (Cherokee) in New Mexico, and Kaiali’ Kahele (Hawaiian) from Hawaii. These representatives will work to ensure our Tribes and the American Indian/Alaska Native communities are integrated into policies, legislation, and federal acts that could have positive impacts on Tribes and the American Indian/Alaska Native community such as the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The Federal Government implemented ICWA in 1978, with new regulations established in 2016, to provide clearer guidance on the implementation of ICWA. The federal government established ICWA to address the disproportionate number of Native children being removed from their homes and placed in white, middle class families. We have since learned the importance of keeping children with their families, when safe, and ICWA is additionally important as it requires state and county child welfare systems to include tribal voices regarding where their children are placed, whether temporary or permanent.

The federal government enacted NAGPRA in 1990, to address the rights of lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations to Native American cultural items, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. An important purpose of this act is the requirement to consult with Tribal Nations on where the items listed previously or ancestral remains are repatriated. Both of these federal acts demonstrate the government to government relationship our federal government has with each of the 574 tribal nations.

Both of these Acts hold anniversaries in the month of November, which coincides with Native American Heritage Month. Native American Heritage Month is an opportunity to look at Native American history, our presence in current society, and how we can influence future Native generations to become stronger and more visible.

Three Ute tribal flags hung in the State Capitol building

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe flags hang in the Colorado State Capitol building. 

Kathryn Redhorse

The State of Colorado established the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA) in 1976 to serve as the official liaison between the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the forty-six other historical Tribes and the State of Colorado. CCIA helps ensure that Tribes and the American Indian/Alaska Native communities are visible in our state. Additionally, CCIA partners with American Indian/Alaska Native-serving organizations to have a positive impact on the community statewide. By statute, the Lt. Governor serves as the chair of CCIA, guaranteeing it maintains a position of priority in each administration.

CCIA is grateful to partner with History Colorado to not only celebrate Native American Heritage Month in November, but to extend the celebration all year long. Both agencies have respected the government-to-government relationship with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the forty-six Tribes who have affiliations with Colorado, and all American Indian/Alaska Natives statewide.

One way the agencies are celebrating Native American Heritage Month is by highlighting Tribal and community leaders monthly in the History Colorado online magazine. Adding a Native perspective monthly to The Colorado Magazine will help demonstrate how to move forward with consistently acknowledging the importance of the Indigenous community, beyond just Native American Heritage Month. We should celebrate our culture throughout the year. We need to continuously make our cultural heritage, our rights, and our Tribal Nations visible to all.

Perhaps 2020 will be remembered as a year catalyzing societal change. Future generations will see how Tribal Nations endured this pandemic, how the Native community supported one another, how the Native community exercised their right to vote, and how this continued partnership between CCIA and History Colorado models how to make our Tribal Nations and the AI/AN community more visible throughout the year.

This article is part of a series through a partnership with the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs to elevate Indigenous perspectives and reflections. 

Collective Loss, Collaborative Recovery
Ernest House, Jr. (Ute Mountain Ute) comes from an extremely long line of environmental stewards. In times of environmental disaster like Colorado’s wildfires of 2020, he sees opportunities to work together. “The threats to our lands are intertwined, but so are the benefits of protecting them,” he notes.