Colorado Tribe Puts Cultural Riches On Display One of the country's wealthiest Native American tribes, Colorado's Southern Ute, has spent $38 million on a museum and cultural center meant to teach outsiders and young Southern Utes about the tribe's history.

Colorado Tribe Puts Cultural Riches On Display

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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.


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.

ROBERT BIRCH: We remained here.

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

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.

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.

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.


ULABY: 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...

MATTHEW BOX: 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.


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.

SAMANTHA PACHECO: There's you and Johnny Man.


THOMPSON: There's Ian.

PACHECO: There's Ian.

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.

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


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.

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

THOMPSON: So everybody is usually looking at us.

PACHECO: We are literally a museum in a body.

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

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


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