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‘Cavalry,’ Indians try harmony

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WELLSVILLE, Cache County — Indians and the "cavalry" are getting along much better.

During a three-day conference this week, members of various Western National Guard units and Intermountain Indian tribes are discussing ways to better communicate and understand each other.

"If a white man and an Indian are standing on opposite sides of a river and the white man asks how to get across, the Indian says, 'You're already across,' " said Roland McCook of the Northern Ute Tribe. "It's just perception. How you look at us and how we look at you."

The military's interest in better communication with American Indians stems from a somewhat surprising statistic. Based upon their representation in the U.S. population at large, there are more American Indians per capita in the military than other ethnic groups, said Alan Downer, Navajo tribal historic preservation officer.

"Native Americans understand the military much better then the general population," he said. "We grew up watching cowboy and Indian movies, but Native Americans are not that hard to get along with. You need to have an open mind."

But an open mind is something federal agencies haven't had in recent years, says McCook, whose tribe took the Bureau of Land Management to court two years ago. McCook says the BLM encroached on Ute land when it rounded up wild horses without consulting tribal leaders. The only forum made available was a town hall meeting in Vernal where Ute leaders were asked to sit in the crowd.

"I didn't want them to involve me in a town hall meeting. I want them to sit face to face with my tribe and discuss the impacts of their proposals," McCook said. "We want some dialogue; we are a sovereign government recognized by the United States. A lot of times the government will meet with us but do what they want anyway."

In the BLM case, the judge ruled in favor of the Utes, saying the BLM failed to directly consult the tribe. McCook said since then things have improved.

"The relationship has changed for the better," said Samuel Billisson, a Navajo code-talker during World War II. "Just recently the government has been making an effort for consultation. Before they would just do what they wanted."

Another reason the Utah National Guard has specific interest in working with local tribes has a twist involving archaeology. Because so many remains and artifacts have been recovered at Camp Williams south of Salt Lake City, any digging on the base now requires the attendance of an archaeologist to help understand the significance of any findings.

"We would like to ensure a good working relationship with the tribes," said Paul Graham, environmental compliance manager for the Utah National Guard. "We believe we're doing a good job, but there's always room for improvement."

E-mail: thayes@desnews.com