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Cooke: Sweat lodge deconstruction at Hughes stresses need for action

Two Indigenous men stand in the shade of trees, speaking to a group of people.
David Young and Kenny Frost address the crowd gathered around two cottonwood trees west of Aggie Greens Disc Golf Course at a press conference held by the Hughes Land Back initiative in Fort Collins Sept. 18. At the press conference, organized after the dismantling of a sweat lodge constructed in the same place, Indigenous people shared the history of the area and spoke on their wish to be able to access the land where Hughes Stadium formerly stood. (Serena Bettis | The Collegian)

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Sometime late last week, a sweat lodge was deconstructed on the Hughes Public Open Land. The sweat lodge had been erected during a July 24 event organized by the Hughes Land Back initiative and was used for spiritual ceremonies.

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Amber Lane, a descendant of the Seneca Nation, worked to track down where the sweat lodge was taken and why it was deconstructed in the first place.

According to Lane, an unknown person or people deconstructed and moved the sweat lodge off of the Hughes site. While the precise details are unclear, the sweat lodge ended up in the possession of the City of Fort Collins’ Natural Areas department.

Lane emphasized City officials did a good job of helping her track it down and were very supportive and added that the sweat lodge has since been returned to members of the Apache Tribe of Colorado.

What’s at stake here is the basic human right to freely practice one’s spiritual beliefs. If current jurisdictions can’t guarantee that basic right, then it is time to change those jurisdictions.”

The deconstruction of this ceremonial site highlights the disconnect between the City and its Indigenous community members. It also demonstrates that turning the Hughes land over to Native stewardship is more than justified at this point. After this, it should be obligatory.

Readers shouldn’t have to be reminded of the historical argument for giving land back to Native peoples. We all live, walk, work and play on stolen land every single day, no matter where we are.

This obvious fact, however, should underscore the significance of what happened at the Hughes Public Open Land last week. The intentional removal of any group’s religious space should make all Americans cringe, but such a removal becomes especially disgraceful when that group has been separated from their places of worship over centuries of violence and theft.

We’re not looking to put a fence around and keep people out. That’s not the intent of Indigenous people. We just want access to the land.” –David Young, Apache Tribe of Colorado with Genízaro Affiliated Nations spokesperson

“It would be like tearing down a church,” Lane said. “Why do we have to fight this hard?”

Kenny Frost, a private Native American consultant in the protection of sacred places and identification of sacred land, spoke at the Hughes Land Back event last Saturday about the history of Native relations with state and federal governments.

According to Frost, Native Americans throughout history “didn’t have the luxury of practicing our religion to worship. … We didn’t even become citizens and have the right to vote until 1924.”

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Frost referenced the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which made all Native Americans born in this country citizens, according to the Library of Congress. Frost also referenced the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which protects Native peoples’ access to sites for worship.

It’s important to note the dates here. The original inhabitants of this continent have only been legally considered citizens for less than a century, and their right to practice their religions has only been explicitly protected for 43 years.

These facts might explain why, even in Fort Collins, our Native neighbors still struggle to exercise this basic human right — but these facts do not excuse it.

Whoever deconstructed that sweat lodge was either not aware of this history — for which there is no credible excuse — or they lacked the basic empathy required to understand what that structure meant in its physical context. Either explanation implies the same thing: We have serious work to do in bridging this cultural gap.

David Young, an Apache Tribe of Colorado with Genízaro Affiliated Nations spokesperson, also spoke about the sweat lodge’s deconstruction at the Hughes Land Back event Saturday.

“While this comes as no surprise to us, we can’t be discouraged because the struggle hasn’t ended,” Young said. Young also emphasized the need for Native communities to have access to the land in order to continue their ceremonies and build their communities.

What’s at stake here is the basic human right to freely practice one’s spiritual beliefs. If current jurisdictions can’t guarantee that basic right, then it is time to change those jurisdictions.

“We’re not looking for a deed on this,” Young said. “We’re not looking to put a fence around and keep people out. That’s not the intent of Indigenous people. We just want access to the land.”

Sovereign Indigenous stewardship of this land would in no way infringe on anybody’s rights in Fort Collins. On the other hand, failing to listen to Native community members on this issue blatantly violates their rights of religious practice in favor of upholding colonialist systems of ownership.

Lane stressed a distinction between “rights” in the political sense and “sovereign inherent rights” — ones that all humans share, such as the right of access to land and of religious practice. Lane said even though the sweat lodge wasn’t destroyed, the fact of its removal made it “feel like it was bulldozed.”

We can be thankful this sweat lodge was carefully handled and returned to the right people, but ending the discussion there does a huge disservice to our Native neighbors. This incident demonstrates that right relations with Indigenous peoples must start with giving the land back.

Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to reflect the proper title of David Young. 

Cody Cooke can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @CodyCooke17.

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About the Contributors
Cody Cooke, Opinion Director
Cody Cooke is the director of the opinion desk for The Collegian and has worked for the newspaper since December 2019. He is a senior studying English and history with a concentration in creative writing. Cooke joined the opinion desk as a consistent way to sharpen his writing and to get involved with other student writers. He began as a columnist and remained a regular writer for more than a year before moving into his director position. He sees opinion writing as a rich and important combination of argumentation and journalism — a way to present facts that goes beyond objective reporting and makes a point. He also sees it as one of the most accessible platforms for any writer to start building a career. Working at The Collegian has taught him to be accountable and responsible for his own work while being proud of creating something worth sharing to a large audience. While not always easy, Cooke's time at The Collegian has been one of the most constructive and satisfying experiences of his collegiate career. 
Serena Bettis, Editor in Chief
Serena Bettis is your 2022-23 editor in chief and is in her final year studying journalism and political science. In her three years at The Collegian, Bettis has also been a news reporter, copy editor, news editor and content managing editor, and she occasionally takes photos, too. When Bettis was 5, her family moved from Iowa to a tiny town northwest of Fort Collins called Livermore, Colorado, before eventually moving to Fort Collins proper. When she was 8 years old, her dad enrolled at Colorado State University as a nontraditional student veteran, where he found his life's passion in photojournalism. Although Bettis' own passion for journalism did not stem directly from her dad, his time at CSU and with The Collegian gave her the motivation to bite down on her fear of talking to strangers and find The Collegian newsroom on the second day of classes in 2019. She's never looked back since. Considering that aforementioned fear, Bettis is constantly surprised to be where she is today. However, thanks to the supportive learning environment at The Collegian and inspiring peers, Bettis has not stopped chasing her teenage dream of being a professional journalist. Between working with her section editors, coordinating news stories between Rocky Mountain Student Media departments and coaching new reporters, Bettis gets to live that dream every day. When she's not in the newsroom or almost falling asleep in class, you can find Bettis working in the Durrell Marketplace and Café or outside gazing at the beauty that is our campus (and running inside when bees are nearby). This year, Bettis' goals for The Collegian include continuing its trajectory as a unique alt-weekly newspaper, documenting the institutional memory of the paper to benefit students in years to come and fostering a sense of community and growth both inside the newsroom and through The Collegian's published work. Bettis would like to encourage anyone with story ideas, suggestions, questions, concerns or comments to reach out to her at editor@collegian.com.

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