Ancient History

Follow Me?



chipeta.jpgI wove the tips of dyed purple and white feathers into her braids. I draped strings of glass beads around her neck and wrists. I pinned the brown skirt with rick-rack trim we found at the thrift store around her waist. She slipped on her Mary Janes and became Chipeta, Princess of the Ute Indians, wife of Chief Ouray, Colorado history icon, example of the head-held-high. She looked radiant.

Colorado fourth-graders must study state history. Often, a musical production is involved. The highlight is usually a universal squirm shivering through the chairs when “Rocky Mountain High” is sung. Nearly every girl wants to be the exotic, beautiful, but doomed Baby Doe Tabor, every boy John Elway or Adolph Coors. There’s always a kid who wants to be Alfred Packer, Colorado’s Finest Cannibal. Aidan wanted to be Chipeta. She lobbied hard and won the part.

The kids wrote their own scripts, memorized the words, and adopted their character’s features for the performance. On stage, they were grouped together: The Explorers, The Miners, The Pioneers, The Women, The Indians. The groups took turns at center-stage.

Aidan strode forward with the boy who played Chief Ouray, Chipeta’s husband. Under lights that coaxed shine out of the beads and her proud face she began to recite the events of Chipeta’s life.

Hi! I’m Princess Chipeta of the Ute Tribe of Western Colorado. I am married to Ouray….

The boy playing Chief Ouray vigorously shook his head “no!” so we in the audience would be clear they weren’t really married. Everyone laughed. But Aidan didn’t understand why—clearly, she thought the laughter was directed at her.

She swallowed and pinched her mouth closed. Her body cupped. The room was silent for several moments. A woman behind me murmured “oh, no.” My mind began flinging wise things I could say when it was time to help her recover, my arm around her shoulder, promises and perspective quick and comforting.

Suddenly Aidan’s head lifted. She took a deep breath.

Did you know my name means White Singing Bird?

Aidan continued. Chipeta could play the guitar, worked for better Indian and settler relations. She met Ulysses Grant. She died in 1924 and is buried in Montrose, Colorado. You can visit her grave.

Applause, a quick smile of relief, retreat back into the mix of fourth graders in cowboy hats and shaggy glued mustaches and bonnets—she was done.

It’s difficult to convey how that one small moment changed how I view her. In a few seconds, I watched her go from mortified to quietly assured and it was a sight to behold. I think parenting is filled with moments like this, but our children aren’t on a stage, illuminated, braided, beaded, costumed on a daily basis. Our attentions are pulled elsewhere. The spotlight of that night redirected my gaze where it should have been all along.

11 comments to Chipeta

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>