BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Long before Buckley had a flight line and Hangar 909, eons before giant-sized golf balls lined up on Aurora's eastern plains, the area we now populate with F-16's and Blackhawks and radomes was an open prairie. The wide expanse of grass that fell under the shadow of the mighty Rockies was home to large herds of buffaloes and elk. Bald and golden eagles and red-tailed hawks soared above coyotes, foxes, burrowing owls, snakes, rabbits and prairie dogs.
The plains were inhabited. Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa Indian tribes hunted across Eastern Colorado. The Jicarilla Apache perfected basket weaving in southern parts of the state. The Ute tribe occupied the entire central and western parts of Colorado. The cliff ruins and pueblos in southwestern Colorado were a testament to the "Ancient Ones," the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians, who settled and prospered there, then moved on. These tribes shared the prairie with the Navaho and Shoshoni and the Bannock and Pawnee. As herds of wildlife migrated, so did the Native Americans that depended on the animals for sustenance. And, so their paths took them across many of the same areas as they competed for food, made war upon each other, and gathered for sacred ceremonies.
This is the history of our country before it was our country. Over the last one hundred years, the United States Congress has passed a series of laws designed to protect this heritage. The ideas expressed in the Archeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act have made their way into Defense Department and Air Force regulations.
Recognizing that many Native American tribes roamed across the prairie we call Buckley Air Force Base and camped at our own East Tollgate Creek, the 460th Space Wing leadership wanted to include local Native American tribes in the growth of the base - to give a voice to the people that communed with this land before we were here. Air Force personnel and contractors within the 460th Civil Engineer Squadron reached out to 27 tribes, inquiring about their interest in this base that was heavily developed during World War II, almost totally demolished in the 1950's, then slowly re-built again over the next five decades.
The response was gratifying. The base is involved in on-going environmental cleanup and a recent building surge, both of which involve a great deal of soil excavation. The potential exists for ancient artifacts to surface during all that digging. When Buckley asked if the tribes could come and consult with the base, 14 of them made the trek from reservations in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and our own Colorado...and history was made.
The Buckley Air Force Base Native American Tribal Consultation Meeting took place May 12-13, 2010. Colonel Clint Crosier, 460th Space Wing commander, welcomed members of the Yankton Sioux; the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma; the Rosebud Sioux; the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma; the Ute Mountain Ute; the Flandreau Santee Sioux; the Northern Arapaho; the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribe; the Mescalero Apache; the Southern Ute; the Standing Rock Sioux; the Crow Tribe; and the Jicarilla Apache Nation.
"Some of you use the term 'Native American.' Some of you have said, 'Indian'. I'd like to use the term "friend,'" offered the colonel during his opening remarks.
Each morning, and at meals, a Native American prayer was offered by a different tribe in their own tongue. Hubert Two Leggins, Cultural Director for the Crow Tribe, was attending the tribe's first consultation. "We look up to these people that defend our country. All tribes have service members." Speaking about his own involvement with the consultation, "We need to protect these cultural areas where our ancestors survived," he said.
Darlene Conrad, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Northern Arapaho, touched her heart and said, "We have a part of this base right here." Colonel Crosier responded, "As you know, we are in Arapahoe County," bringing on laughter throughout the room.
Andrew Frost, Councilmember of the Southern Ute Tribe explained, "The people in this room are a sovereign nation, collectively and individually. We sit here in the 20th century...This is a new day. Where it goes is anyone's guess. Today is a good day!"
Much of Native American history is related by one generation passing tribal stories along to the next generation. Terry Knight, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, explained.
"We rely on our legends on who was where, who might have gone where. Only those people who had the right to speak would speak...and they had the honor and privilege to do so, and they stood on it."
While the base is actually in its second building surge, it still maintains some of its pre-settler topography, like East Tollgate Creek which passes through now in much the same way it did a hundred years ago. The base still supports many important flora and fauna. It was decided by tribal caucus at the consultation meeting that all 27 tribes would be invited back to the base in August of this year to visit East Tollgate Creek, and to study the plant life after it has had the summer to grow.
Also at the tribal caucus, consultation members requested the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute tribes to serve as their representatives should artifacts or human remains be found in excavation and construction on the base.
Curley Youpee, Director of Cultural Resources for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, explained that this was a solemn honor to bestow upon the Ute tribes. He also said, "When we are honored in this way, we like to give a gift in return." He proceeded to sing a somber song as everyone in the room shook the hands of the Ute tribe members, Terry Knight, Neil Cloud, and Andrew Frost.
Colonel Crosier brought the consultation to a close with the determination that the consultation would resume in its formal format in three years.
"This has been a historic opportunity as we work together. We can't change the past, but we can move forward together from this point," said Colonel Crosier.