As the leaves change to gold and time marches on its inexorable way, the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum is progressing steadily toward its scheduled opening in June 2011.
It is an exciting – and exhausting – time for the people who have been working on the project.
“Would you like to see my scars?” asked Executive Director Lynn Brittner. “It’s taken at least 10 years, and Bennett (Thompson, who sits on the museum board) has been working on it since the ’80s.”
The center will cost about $35 million, making it one of the more expensive projects built in La Plata County in recent years. Topping the list are Mercy Regional Medical Center, which came in at more than $75 million, and the new Student Union at Fort Lewis College, which is costing about $45 million.
Everyone from tribal elders to preschoolers weighed in on the features and design of the center.
“We started with the little kids in Head Start at the academy,” Brittner said. “We asked them to draw what a yucky and then a nonyucky museum would be like.”
She was most struck by a quiet high school student who told architect Johnpaul Jones that when she thought about her people, she thought about water.
“There will be a hole drilled through that rock,” said Tom Redmond, the tribe’s project manager, pointing out a boulder where a water feature will be located as a result of that comment. “lt will look like a mountain stream with a tiny waterfall. It was on the list to be cut, but we really wanted to save it.”
Connection to place
Jones, of Cherokee-Choctaw heritage, was one of the lead designers of the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C. He took some of his inspiration from the plants and rock that are part of the Ute landscape.
Massive ponderosa pine poles support the Welcoming Center, and stones dug from quarries in Fort Collins and Telluride are included in the design.
Grandfather stones are set at the bases of walls to connect back to the places where the stone originated.
“These large, uncarved rocks and boulders serve as reminders of the Native peoples’ relationships to the environment because they have been hewn by wind and water for millions of years,” Jones said. “They carry the message and cultural memory of past generations to future generations and reinforce the people’s connection to this place.”
The Ponderosa pine poles are dramatic and beautiful, but they were not easy to obtain.
“They’re so large we had to get them from Montana,” Redmond said. “The center pole is seven trunks bound together. They had to be kiln-dried and inspected by a lumber grader to make sure they could support the weight of all the glass.”
The glass tower that is the centerpiece of the museum has been alternatively called a stylized teepee, a woman’s shawl or basket weave.
Its top will feature colorful Circles of Life, a theme in Ute culture and one that is repeated in various ways throughout the center.
“When it’s lit up at night, it’s going to be really cool to see for people driving by,” Redmond said of the glass feature.
The cultural center and museum are designed to meet a number of needs.
“The high school kids wanted a place where they could go on a Friday night, eat pizza, drink Cokes and kind of chill,” Brittner said. “We didn’t want to have to turn off security for the whole museum to provide that.”
The solution was a separate multipurpose room that will have a large flat-screen TV, full catering kitchen and outdoor kitchen and fire pit on the terrace outside.
Off to the side is a room designed for messy classes – Brittner sees it being used to teach lessons such as how to make jerky and tan elk hides. It will be available for rent for events and conferences.
With the additional space, there is room to grow the museum’s collection of artifacts. Three major donations have come in while the museum is under construction.
“We got a fabulous donation from Marvin Oppler’s daughter, Dr. Ruth Perry, who teaches literature at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology),” Brittner said. “She had all these boxes from her dad, who was an anthropologist who worked with the Southern Ute Tribe in the 1930s.”
Two other major collections have come in from Jim Goss and Jan Petite.
The archive collection space will hold more than the museum’s collection of more than 1,500 artifacts.
“We have a policy that if tribal members want us to store their collections, we will,” Brittner said. “We can take care of them with climate controls. If they want them back, we will give them back.”
In addition to the archival space, the museum will have a full-scale conservatorship laboratory. Brittner hopes it will provide cross-educational opportunities with her alma mater, Fort Lewis College, which does not have a similar lab of its own.
‘Like coming home’
General Superintendent Mark Crom with FCI Constructors Inc., the general contractor, said his company is about 85 percent done with its share of the project.
In October, the rough-in will start, with exhibits going in beginning in January.
In the meantime, Brittner, her staff and the board are planning a monthlong series of events for the grand opening.
While the tribe hopes the cultural center and museum will inspire others to learn about its history and serve as an economic stimulus for Ignacio, it also has a bigger mission.
The ultimate goal is to preserve tribal history and recapture what has been lost.
“For the Southern Utes, coming to this museum should feel like coming home,” museum Board Chairman Robert Burch said.