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Colorado Tribe Puts Cultural Riches On Display

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Colorado Tribe Puts Cultural Riches On Display

Arts & Life

Colorado Tribe Puts Cultural Riches On Display

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A lack of funds is not a problem for the Ute, a tiny Native American tribe. The tribe has spent nearly $40 million on a new museum and cultural Center.

NPR's Neda Ulaby stopped by the opening in a remote corner of Colorado, near the New Mexico border.

NEDA ULABY: The party for this gorgeous new museum on the Southern Ute reservation has a buffet of what you could call haute Native cuisine; chokecherry pate, elk tenderloin, and there was a live band.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: The spectacular building looks like a bristling metal teepee poking out of the desert. It was designed by a blue chip architect and paid for by accident. When the U.S. government split the Ute people into three different tribes in the late 19th century, it sent most of them away.

Mr. ROBERT BIRCH (Board Chairman, South Ute Cultural Center and Museum): We remained here.

ULABY: Robert Birch runs the new museum's board.

Mr. BIRCH: And little did they know we're sitting on oil, natural gas. And once we started getting it out of the ground, producing it, we became a wealthy tribe.

ULABY: One of the wealthiest, in fact. Now there are less than 1,00 Southern Ute, but they're worth billions. The tribe is literally a case study in expert wealth management. They already had a museum.

Mr. BIRCH: But it was an awful little building, maybe not even a thousand square feet.

ULABY: And Birch says there wasn't anything in it the Southern Ute were really proud of.

Mr. BIRCH: But we decided to build a place where we could have a showcase for our children and grandchildren. And they would always know their culture.

ULABY: And maybe attract tourists visiting a nearby casino, built to diversify the tribe's portfolio.

(Soundbite of drumming)

ULABY: Matthew Box is drumming at the opening ceremony here. He's a former tribal chairman who says the Southern Ute were able to get back artifacts from private collectors and other museums, including the Smithsonian. Stuff like priceless white clay pottery and beadwork that's mind-bendingly intricate.

But this in some ways two museums. One for tourists, and one for the Southern Ute. When I asked Matthew Box what in this museum meant most to him, he said...

Mr. MATTHEW BOX (Former Tribal Chairman): This one picture, which isn't an artifact or beadwork or a vest or anything. It is a picture that has my mother, my Uncle Leonard, my grandpa, and my dad and myself. And we're all sitting around a drum.

(Soundbite of drumming and singing)

ULABY: Besides the expensive replicas of teepees and boarding school classrooms, there's a lot of big blown up photos of the Southern Ute today.

Ms. SAMANTHA PACHECO: There's you and Johnny Man.

Mr. IAN THOMPSON: Where am I?

Mr. THOMPSON: There's Ian.

Ms. PACHECO: There's Ian.

Mr. THOMPSON: There's my tattoo.

ULABY: Twenty-one-year-old Samantha Pacheco and her friend Ian Thompson say the museum feels a little bit like a family album. It's a small tribe, so everyone knows everyone.

Mr. THOMPSON: There's Trav. Wait, there's me right there. See, there's me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PACHECO: I'm back there. I'm probably dancing.

ULABY: Pacheco and Thompson say being on display is nothing new. They spend weekends performing in Pow-Wows in places like state fairs.

Ms. PACHECO: We're usually like dancing or singing for everyone.

Mr. THOMPSON: So everybody is usually looking at us.

Ms. PACHECO: We are literally a museum in a body.

Mr. THOMPSON: Kind of right, yeah. There you go.

ULABY: It feels good, they say to have a place where they can finally look at themselves.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of drumming and chanting)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee is back with us tomorrow. Im Steve Inskeep.

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