Chief Niwot’s Curse

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A bust of Chief Niwot near the courthouse on Pearl Street.
Sara McCrea

On the longest night of the year, we sit cross-legged in a circle and watch unfamiliar faces across from us flicker in candlelight. We clasp hands, the one to my right clammy and the one to my left ice cold. The full moon beams through the window like a spotlight on our host, who closes his eyes and begins to speak over the steady beat of a deer hide drum.

I have been here once before, sitting on the floor of my neighbor Ryan’s living room and shivering when someone coming or going from the winter solstice ritual lets in a draft of December air. During an initial conversation in our front yard, my mother and Ryan had quickly bonded over their shared interest in spirituality. Last year, at the beginning of my winter break from college, she convinced me to attend his solstice party, insisting that a Boulder hippie celebration would be a perfect welcome home from my first semester on the East Coast. I was hesitant to go, not because this sort of get-together was foreign to me, but because I was suffering from altitude sickness, an ailment I had previously thought was reserved for tourists. Unwilling to admit the strength of my headache, I had no excuse not to go with my mother to the solstice party around the corner. 

Now, back for the winter break of my second year away, I am already familiar with the strange metric by which I have come to measure my identification with my home. Any personal development or shifts in perspective I acquire from my time at school are unintelligible when I am there; it is only when I return to the place I have always known that I realize exactly how much I have changed. Because of this, much of my relationship to my home appears to be located in the 1,800 miles between Colorado and Connecticut.

“I want to call in the directions: West, East, South, North, Above, Below. Thank you thank you thank you for joining us.” Ryan’s thanks tumble out of his mouth as if pulled from his throat by a string. “Pachamama, our Earth mother, thank you thank you thank you.”

“Thank you thank you thank you,” the girls on either side of me murmur.

Beeswax candles in the center of the circle cast shadows around the room and illuminate an altar of feathers, stones, sage and other materials typically used in indigenous rituals from North and South America. Ryan welcomes us to his semi-annual solstice party, tucking a blond, shoulder-length lock behind his ear and asking us to say our names in a clockwise order. When my parents, sitting a few people away from me, introduce themselves, Ryan smiles and says, “We’re so lucky to have our elders here, to provide their wise insight.” I try to stop myself from wincing at the word elders, not because my parents are nearly twice the age of most people in the room, but because almost all of the faces flickering in the circle are white.

Since neolithic times, the winter solstice has held significance for many different cultures, including indigenous communities in North and South America, East Asia and Africa. Though the solstice marks a time of darkness, its celebration usually revolves around light. Pagans regarded the solstice as a time to celebrate the moon; Druidic tradition used the date to celebrate the light of King Arthur. These days, many people who identify with the label of “spiritual, not religious” use the solstice as an alternate occasion for winter celebration, hoping to turn their backs on the greedy consumerism of Christmas. Ryan’s ritual is grounded in Incan traditions — such as the invocation of the directions — but his annual party also blends elements from Native American tribes and India. It is unclear from which culture he takes each component of the ritual.

Boulder was like most small, Western mining towns — Christian and conservative —  until the late 1960s, when flower children took Volkswagen Fastbacks across the Nebraskan interstate to scour the plains for free love. Many came from the East Coast for Vietnam protests at the University of Colorado, others were on their way to San Francisco when they saw the Rockies and took an eternal detour. They were anti-war, anti-WASP, anti-money. They expected the water that runs from the mountain glaciers to the creek in town to cleanse them of their past lives in places that valued social status and tradition over social openness and freedom. They found in Boulder natural beauty, stories of indigenous spirituality and psychedelics; they founded Naropa University and the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics. They felt pulled to the place by a force which seemed to emanate from the overlooking Flatirons — the jutting mountains formed by layers of compacted sediments dating back 280 million years. In this utopic town nestled in the mountains, they wanted to be reborn. 

When my parents and I moved to Boulder 15 years ago, many new acquaintances and neighbors were excited to tell us about “Chief Niwot’s Curse.” As legend has it, people who come to Boulder and see its regal mountains and sun-soaked valleys are cursed to never leave. If they do leave, it will not be for long, and they will be compelled to return. This legend resonated with none more than my father, who left Colorado when he was 5 years old and returned when I was 5 years old. In 1968, his parents divorced and my grandmother took her three children to a rural town outside of Rockford, Illinois, where they attended schools with mascots that wore red body paint and headdresses. My grandfather moved to a plot of land 45 minutes outside of Boulder, where his children spent dry Colorado summers swimming naked in mountain reservoirs and chopping vegetables in their father’s macrobiotic restaurant downtown. 

Grandpa Jimmy expanded the crumbling cabin on his acre of forest by adding geodesic domes onto the main structure and using lichen rocks to build curving pathways and staircases. In the domes, my dad and his siblings watched lightning storms through the fiberglass roof while surrounded by cases of their father’s weed plants. The design of the domes was inspired by Buckminster Fuller and Antoni Gaudí, with whom my grandfather shared a lifelong enthusiasm for integrating materials and patterns found in nature into buildings and religious spaces. From Gaudí my grandfather learned to have an aversion to lines, squares and rectangles; his passion was reserved for all things rounded, circular and spherical. 

Grandpa Jimmy grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, and moved West to enroll in Colorado College, where he fell in love with geology, Gaudi’s architecture and my grandmother. Like many others who came from the East, he was captured by Colorado’s focus on the uninhibited and the anti-artificial, as well as by the way the sunlight behind the mountains threw shadows across the valley and made the red rocks on the hillside glow. 

In the solstice circle, Ryan speaks about the movement of the planets, our nearness to and distance from the light, and the Earth’s positioning in its revolution. Revolution, a word that means both a return to the same and an action of drastic change. It is a word that suggests that to walk the full circumference of the Earth would lead one to re-evaluate their starting point. 

I do not remember anything before my parents and I moved to Boulder, and because of this I suspect I will only ever understand my home opaquely. Over the past couple years, I have come to believe much of Boulder’s spirit is from it being the destination of a pilgrimage — not a place from which you can come, but the place for which you are always searching. My father describes it as a Neverland, a place that we must eventually leave to fully appreciate. By the time I left for college in Connecticut, Colorado’s natural beauty seemed to me banal, the cultural emphasis on athletics and tech devoid of substance. My high school friends and I dreamt of cities, of places we could go where there would be things to “do” other than skiing and talking about where we skied. We also talked about going to places with more diversity, where we could meet and connect with people from different backgrounds. 

Leaving home, as I had anticipated, brought many valuable and challenging experiences. Most striking, however, was the overview — the realization of the extent to which Boulder’s homogeneity had become dangerously regular to me. Returning to Colorado sharpened my understanding of its beauty, but my return also implanted an awareness of this beauty as a commodity. For some to have access to the fields of wildflowers and rolling hills, others had the access brutally removed. Access, in some respects, is something I inherited, along with my light skin and green eyes.

Ryan passes colored pens and small squares of paper embossed with wildflower seeds around the circle. He instructs us to write something that we want to leave behind in the previous year and to slip the squares into the ridges of a comically large pinecone, which he plans to torch in the pizza oven he has built in his front yard. This way, he says, the negatives of the past will become smoke that dissolves into the dark sky. 

Next to the door of my grandfather’s cabin, printed in fading white ink on a dark slab of rock, a stanza of Rilke: 

“These things that live on departure

Just once, everything only for once…

Earth! What is your urgent command 

if not transformation?”

I want to believe that an act of recognition would somehow absolve my neighbors, my parents and me of participating in a ceremony derived from indigenous rituals on land stolen from indigenous people. A recognition is itself a return, an acknowledgment that something has always been true. Perhaps if Ryan had opened the ritual explicitly stating which cultures informed his ceremony, the homogeneity of the guests would be less problematic. I know that Ryan has extensively studied these rituals with shamans in Peru, and like many others in the Boulder community, he has appreciation for and knowledge of the cultures that taught him these practices. There is nothing mocking about this ritual. And yet. “There is something disingenuous about European Americans — particularly those whom it might be fair to call the ‘winners,’ in terms of economic power and freedoms in America — adopting the identity of… ‘losers’ because we recognize belatedly how much we lost in the transaction that made us white in this country,” essayist Eula Biss writes in Notes from No Man’s Land. Belated recognitions, I am learning, can be personal or inherited. They can appear as confrontations with our own ignorance or can be reflections on how the awful actions of our ancestors are largely responsible for many comforts in our lives.

Belated recognitions complicate Boulder’s self-conceptualization as a place that generates rebirth. We like to imagine that, even though we are white, we are spiritually returning to principles that were abundant on this land before the Gold Rush. We imagine when the hippies poured in from the East and took over the town from the miners, it marked the end, not the continuation, of the cycle of settlement. But these fantasies about rebirth are steeped in erasure and dishonesty. 

There are two public statues of Chief Niwot in Boulder. One, in red stone, depicts him resting his chin on his knee, looking over the path next to the creek that runs through town. The other is a bronze bust that faces the county courthouse. Although I have walked by the statue most days for the past 15 years, it is unobtrusive and hidden by tree branches. Over spring break, around the time of the equinox, I stopped and read the plaque beneath the bust for the first time:

THIS STATUE COMMEMORATES THE ARAPAHO INDIANS WHO HAVE LIVED ON THE PLAINS OF COLORADO SINCE THE 1790’S AND CHIEF NIWOT, WHO WITH HIS PEOPLE SPENT THE WINTERS IN THE BOULDER VALLEY. IT STANDS IN TRIBUTE TO THAT SENSITIVITY AND RESPECT FOR NATURE WHICH IS INHERENT IN THE INDIAN CULTURE.

Like the statue, the message on this plaque is somewhat obscure, but vaguely patronizing. Standing eye to eye with the bust, I found myself wondering why the man it commemorated would tell strangers that they were cursed to stay on his land forever, unless he was vocalizing a fear for the future.

Ryan passes a second stack of seed paper around the circle. He tells us to write down what we want to welcome into our lives for the coming year. We write in silence, and when we are finished, there is a quick debate about whether we should burn these squares along with the papers that contain the negativity we want to leave behind. The consensus is that to do so would complicate the symbolism of destroying the darkness, so we slip the squares into our pockets, to remind us of the light.

There is no historical evidence that Chief Niwot spoke any curse at his first encounter with the white men. Even if he did, within the legend there are different accounts of what the curse was. One story tells the curse as I had heard it: a premonition that anyone who sees the beauty of Boulder will want to stay forever. But according to numerous reports, upon first meeting the gold-seekers in the Front Range, Niwot issued a different warning.

“People seeing the beauty of the valley will want to stay, but their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.”

Chief Niwot was fatally shot in the Sand Creek Massacre in 1858, along with hundreds of other Arapaho and Cheyenne, mostly women and children. Today, the Northern Arapaho people live on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, while the Southern Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes live in Oklahoma, where they were relocated after the massacre. Less than 0.5% of Boulder’s current population is Native American. 

My grandfather’s contemporaries say that the new influx of tech companies is ruining Boulder’s spirit. Open Space ordinances prevent developers from expanding to publicly owned land, and Boulder has instituted height caps on new developments built in the city with the intention of preserving the town’s natural beauty and protecting local wildlife. Yet the restrictions also place spatial limits on housing and are partially responsible for a real estate market in which the cost of an average home surpassed $1 million in 2016. The views of the mountains are protected, but mostly for the white and wealthy. 

As Boulder struggles to define its beauty, it perpetuates another fallacy that was held by the gold seekers, by the flower children, and now by the tech companies. This is the presumption that the land on which the town sits is still a blank canvas, a place that can itself be reborn each time a new group inhabits it. Each cycle of settlement has imprinted upon the land as layers of rock have compacted into the mountains. And yet the past remains unrecognized as long as we assume that we do not have to redeem the land by making space for those who once inhabited it. We fool ourselves in thinking we can outrun where we come from. We fool ourselves in thinking where we come from has not already beat us to where we are going. When something travels in a circle, its return to its starting point does not negate the journey it has made. Each time the town revolves, we assume it returns to the same place, but we do not reckon with the irrevocable change caused by the cycle.

After the guests burn the pine cone, my parents and I say goodbye to our neighbors and walk west to our house in quiet conversation about the ground beneath our feet. The moon, bright and full, lights our path. The mountains in front of us bear witness.    

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