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GUEST COLUMN: Mountain named for inspirational beacon

By: Ann Marie Swan
August 4, 2017 Updated: August 9, 2017 at 5:20 pm
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On May 10, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names approved Salida resident Wayne Iverson's application to rename Chipeta Mountain from a barely discernible subpeak at 12,850 feet to the unnamed 13,472-foot massif next to it in the Sawatch Range in central Colorado.

Iverson moved mountains to dignify Chipeta, the Uncompahgre Ute mediator whose fierce and unconventional gentleness protected an unlikely peace between her people and white settlers in the late 1800s in what is now Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

This honor of a subpeak hidden in the shadows for this member of the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame seemed, well, small.

"An effort to commemorate an important woman came across as an insult," Iverson said.

Iverson got involved in this mountaintop name change when he learned Chipeta Mountain wasn't visible from his town, and locals mistakenly referred to the higher peak as Chipeta.

Renaming Chipeta Mountain is a welcome action in our politically contentious country. I see Chipeta Mountain as a clear marker, a reminder that reaching for peace and diplomacy tops everything, and is no small feat. President Donald Trump could learn a few things from petite, soft-spoken Chipeta, whose words were measured and selective and thoughtful.

Chipeta was born in 1843 and grew to become a master beader, a crack rifle shot and an uncommonly skillful horsewoman with blue-black hair that caught the light. She played guitar and sang and married mediator Ute Chief Ouray in 1859, the year gold was discovered in Colorado, and the earth beneath them became pay dirt.

If Chipeta knew anything, it was how to discern. She was quiet, but not silent, and her pillow talk under milky stars influenced Ouray to seek peace above all else. Chipeta had an uncomplicated gravity about her and was welcomed into Ute camps that barred Ouray, whose members called him a sellout when tensions simmered. She hunched over her beadwork alongside other women when the air was anointed with roasting buffalo in blue moonlight. She leaned in to say it just wasn't worth losing more loved ones. She persuaded women who persuaded their warrior husbands to choose peace. They couldn't match the firepower of the whites, and besides, the Utes were the lucky ones - they didn't need much. Chipeta advanced beyond adviser and confidante to Ouray to sit on Ute tribal councils as the lone woman.

In the end, Chipeta became a refugee in her homeland. The Utes lost about two-thirds of its land in treaties with the United States. I'm curious about the moment when Chipeta felt viscerally that it was over. That it was time to let go of the land and its benevolent sunshine and familiar plants and wildlife that nourished her people, who sang to the land and left gifts for all it offered them.

Chipeta got her peace but was forced to settle on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah, where she tilled dirt as cracked and light brown as her face. A new poverty complete with welfare.

Chipeta outlived Ouray by 44 years and died in 1924. Her grace is known to have never wavered.

Just before the name change, Iverson wanted me to see Chipeta. We climbed a moon-dusty trail on Tenderfoot Mountain above Salida. Tenderfoot is naked after poisons from an ore smelter blew over it in the early 1900s and killed its piñons and juniper trees. I doubled my strides to match those stretching from Iverson's 6"4' frame. I stared hard at the ripples between Sawatch's heaven-bound peaks. Still, I couldn't find Chipeta.

But, now, I see Chipeta rightfully in the foreground. She's a beacon that arrests my attention and steadies me before my thoughts run off and scatter in the distance. I'm getting my bearings.

Chipeta inspires me to live and work in a larger way. This is not the time for any of us to be small.

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Ann Marie Swan has spent most of her life as a daily journalist. She worked on the copy desk at The Rocky Mountain News, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Honolulu Weekly and Pacific Stars and Stripes in Tokyo. She lives in Salida and works as a librarian at Salida Regional Library.

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