Indian issues sway Parks Board against Garden of Gods cave-research project

       After hearing opposition from American Indian leaders, the Colorado Springs Parks Advisory Board Nov. 12 denied a Garden of the Gods cave-opening project that had been proposed by the Old Colorado City Historical Society (OCCHS).
       The board's 7-0 vote (lacking two of its nine members) concluded a sometimes-contentious community debate that has spanned three Parks Board meetings since July.
       The OCCHS was not asking for funding, just approval to open the cave (located off the North Gateway rock formation) long enough for archeologists to document any records or artifacts from explorers dating back to the 1840s. However, the board sided with the Indian view that the Garden is sacred and should not be disturbed by people unless absolutely necessary.
       The board vote followed a recommendation from City Parks' Cultural Services Director Matt Mayberry. He said that comments by Southern Ute Elder Alden Naranjo at an Oct. 17 Garden of the Gods commemoration event made it “very clear he was speaking for the Southern Utes and expressing their opposition to this project.” Since then, he added, he's heard that the Northern Utes are also opposed.
       The discussion Nov. 12 included a sharp exchange between Parks Board member Richard Stettler and Dave Hughes of the OCCHS. Stettler took umbrage to Hughes' comment that the society will now write a document detailing what's known about the cave, “but we will close with a chapter on our thwarted efforts to complete our research on property owned by the City of Colorado Springs.”
       Stettler responded by saying that Hughes and the OCCHS had not done their “due diligence” by failing in attempts to obtain Indian support for their cave project. “You threaten us with some sort of history you're going to write with a negative chapter about us thwarting your efforts.”
       Hughes stormed back that that “we don't appreciate” the city's stance “because all we're interested in is accurate, balanced, not convenient history. That's the issue. This has been very political.”
       At this point, board member Kent Obee, who was chairing the meeting, cut off the debate and asked for comments from any other citizen.
       The next speaker was Eugene (Redhawk) Orner, an American Indian and Westside resident who expressed indignation that in past meetings his comments in opposition to the project have not been given the status of coming from the “accepted official representative of the American Indian communities in this area,” as he described himself. He went on to detail damage to the park that could occur because of the associated need for equipment to break the current seal on the cave and to work inside; he also pointed out recorded Native American concerns about preserving the Garden during the 1990s Master Plan effort that removed motorized traffic and a former concession stand from the inner Garden area. “The Garden is considered sacred by the American Indians nations,” Redhawk said. “Any event that causes physical damage in the Garden dismays us. The main opposition to the excavation is to avoid serious damage to the site with questionable results and value.”
       Mayberry later explained that while Redhawk is well respected, formal approval was needed from leaders of the Southern Ute Indians under a State Historical Society guideline that designates that nation as the main point of contact for the Garden.
       That was the approach taken by the OCCHS, which sent letters to the designated Southern Ute representative, asking to state any concerns. But no response ever came back.
       Hughes emphasized that records to date reveal not even “one scintilla of evidence that the cave was ever occupied at any time by an Indian tribe.” If so, he said, “we would understand the reported sensitivities of Native Americans toward that project and the city's acceptance of their advice.”
       Enlisting the support of UCCS anthropologist Bill Arbogast, the OCCHS had planned to apply for a state grant to cover the costs of opening, exploring, documenting and reclosing the cave, which is reportedly 100 feet high and 200 feet across. It has been sealed up since 1965.
       Left uncertain by the discussion was whether the Parks Board vote was setting a precedent for the future that American Indian approval would be necessary for any archaeological research in the Garden. Mayberry conceded the question exists, but added, “I still feel it's important that we respect our long-standing interactions with the American Indian community.”
       Before voting, Obee and board member Carl Reinhardt said they had doubts whether the value would be worth the impacts to the Garden or, as Obee put it, “the unhappiness in the community.”
       The feedback from Naranjo broke a kind of stalemate with the board. At the board's Sept. 10 meeting, still lacking a Southern Ute response, the board had agreed to let the OCCHS move forward with its project if no response to a city letter to designated Southern Ute leaders came back. Naranjo, who has worked with city leaders in the past, was one of the two who was sent a letter at that time (the other was Matthew Box, Chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe).

Westside Pioneer article