The Land Holds Memories

A view of the foothills, including Horsetooth Rock, west of the Colorado State University campus.
Photo: Colorado State University Libraries, Archives & Special Collections


On the occasion of the University’s sesquicentennial, two Native American faculty members provide a prologue – an understanding of often-erased knowledge and a view of how all past living and learning give Colorado State its presence. Originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of the CSU Magazine.

Where the prairie converges with the Plains, the foothills watch. They have long been the relatives of these lands and witnesses to all adventures, explorations, and settlings. The Plains and prairie have also long been partners in this space; they are the original innovators, the knowers, and teachers. The foothills remain present as protectors of those west winds and incubators of the snow and rain that feed these spaces, peoples, and purposes. Our sense of this place, our sense of this land, is beckoned through this convergence and their ancestral traditions. Waters flow in snake rivers, are cradled in valleys where corn and long grasses, such as Indian ricegrass and needlegrass, grew and grow, dozens of flowers, including prickly poppy, yucca, rabbitbrush, and prairie sunflowers, bloom and nestle; these are the homes for the bison, pronghorn, and deer, as well as swift fox, burrowing owls, and golden eagles.

These lands, siblings of the Rockies, hold many lessons and ways of being. The clay still holds knowledge and footprints of beings, events, and experiences. It, the clay, waits for new stories and new understandings. Communities were here more than 12,000 years ago; those were the times of the mammoth. And, although they are often called the Paleo-Indians, they were here: relatives, ancestors of societies and knowers of land, sensors of place, and practitioners of purpose.

What is now Larimer County and the lands from which Colorado State University was born, come from these histories, from this place, these knowers that are thousands and thousands of years old. Let us also recall some of those who were here before and adjacent to CSU’s birth: the Apache, the Arapaho, the Cheyenne, the Pueblo, the Shoshone, and the Ute are named by the Colorado Department of Education to be those earlier neighbors, residents, and citizens. As we also know, in the time period we recognize peoples historically, they were the original inhabitants, the interspecies kinship knowers, the original land-grant stewards. Furthermore, the Comanche, the Kiowa, and the Navajo/Diné, were frequent travelers, regular knowledge gatherers, and recurring residents, as well as the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota and the Pawnee. All these nations, tribes, and peoples have walked, laughed, and learned in these lands. Some of us can still sense their presence as their stride walks within us, their laughter continues to feed us, their knowledge is still teaching us; and we, their relatives, still call this place home.

Most historical records of CSU, Fort Collins, Larimer County, and the United States suggest that history began with the arrival of white/European settlers, the structures they built, the religion they practiced, and the economic endeavors they undertook. Only certain people, certain cultural formations, are positioned as the agents of history and thus, they wield the tools to capture, create, and acknowledge historical records. Indigenous people, when we are mentioned in such histories, are too often portrayed as obstacles to the inevitable march of progress. In such accounts, we exist as mere historical precursors to the stars and stripes of democracy – an era of improvement manifested in land-grant institutions. While this may be typically accepted and understood as truth, we seek through ethical and educational obligations to enhance our sense of place, this place, and our histories. We must teach the fallacies, inaccuracies, and continued legacies of this singular history, this one-dimensional knowing of land, chronicle of memoirs, and erasure of life.

CSU’s 150th anniversary is a cause for celebration; yet, it is also a critical opportunity to reflect upon the dire cost paid by the original people of this place and these lands."

CSU’s 150th anniversary is a cause for celebration; yet, it is also a critical opportunity to reflect upon the dire cost paid by the original people of this place and these lands. We must call to, recognize, and require the University’s ongoing obligations to that legacy and to the indigenous community today. For, we do know the original peoples of this area cultivated a profound sense of place, and a wealth of history, traditions, and lifeways for thousands of years through the learning that came from, on, and through the land, water, and all the inhabitants. In recognition of place, histories, and our relationships, there needs to be acknowledgment of the more dynamic realities of people, nations, education, and sociopolitical demands and desires as well as the writings, the recordings of truth of these histories. All of the past living and learning on what is now CSU’s campus are what give it its presence and sense of place today – including what and who existed prior to those 150 years.

The removal of tribal nations and erasure of this original sense of place within these lands was neither an inevitable result of Westward Expansion nor was it simply an unfortunate, if violent, phase in history. It was the intentional work of national policies and the enforcers of edicts and dictates, including Colorado Gov. Frederick Pitkin, who held the state’s top office from 1879 to 1883 and ran on a campaign of forcible Ute removal and extermination. And yet today, Pitkin Street is one of the main campus thoroughfares. Pitkin’s violent legacy is only one example of the erased histories we are obliged to uncover and name, since such truth is fundamental to the University’s nature. Otherwise, the ongoing erasure of Native American and indigenous presences goes unnamed, their/our lifeways positioned as antithetical to growth, evolution, and, ironically, freedom. Practices such as street and building naming glorify and historicize, once again, those responsible for that initial removal under the auspices of progress and triumph of knowledge advancement. Celebrations of history can serve to re-story familiar and beloved places as having been established on a blank slate, rather than located on stolen territories through violent, forceful, and vicious means.

In an effort to begin to challenge that erasure and to recognize the original stewards, knowers, and protectors of this place, CSU has recently adopted a land acknowledgment process. It aims to recognize that these lands CSU now occupies, and thus CSU’s founding, came at a grave cost to the nations and peoples who were (and are) here. The acknowledgment affirms the ongoing ties Native nations and peoples have to this space. As a land-grant institution, CSU has an obligation to rewrite and more fully understand our sense of place.

Doreen E. Martinez and Lindsey Schneider are assistant professors of Native American/indigenous studies in CSU’s Department of Ethnic Studies.