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Our View: Becoming native to Durango

When “Prairie Home Companion” broadcast from Fort Lewis College in 1998, the show included “The Lives of the Cowboys.” In the skit, cowboys Dusty and Lefty arrive in Durango and talk with a local woman who complains stridently about all the newcomers. When asked how long she had lived here, she answered, “Six months!”

My wife and I heard the 2000 rebroadcast, enjoying the humor but taking the point of Garrison Keillor’s satire. As I approached my final year of college teaching in western Massachusetts, we were seeking a home in the West. Having passed through Durango, we knew the attractions of the local environment and of the historic downtown. As academics, we found additional appeal in FLC. Might we also become resented new residents?

An answer came a year later, during a road trip to favorite Western places. In Durango, we had dinner with a local couple – a man born and raised here and his wife, who had graduated from FLC in the 1970s and stayed. Recalling the cowboy skit, I asked what they thought about potential newcomers like us. Their answer has shaped our lives since: “If you are willing to be part of the community, come.”

Soon thereafter, I heard a talk that built on Wes Jackson’s “Becoming Native to This Place.” I realized that education and academic jobs had taken me away from my Chicago birthplace and family to cities large and small, never for long enough to become rooted. Once I found a secure position, teaching and research left little time to invest in community. Like so many 20th century Americans, I had uprooted and never settled. My wife’s journey from rural Wyoming had been similar.

These experiences informed our intent to become native to Durango. Upon arriving, we felt welcomed into the community richness mostly invisible to the casual visitor. Besides the obvious restaurants and breweries, we found Merely Players, Green Business Roundtable, the Women’s Resource Center, Life Long Learning at FLC, Hillcrest Golf Club and much more. We joined and volunteered for some of the hundreds of non-profits and enjoyed befriending people who energize them. They are epitomized by the late Ed Zink, whose memorial service filled the Community Concert Hall at FLC, and by the annual honorees at the Chamber of Commerce’s Durango Rocks. For me, volunteerism led to public service on City Council, a highlight of my life. We have, after all, become native to Durango.

With that rootedness has come awareness that not everyone has the welcoming experience we did. In an exercise at a Community Relations Commission event, the roughly 75 participants stood shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the Rec Center meeting room. We then took steps backwards or forward to answer questions such as, “Did you or your ancestors ever experience discrimination?” A short series of such questions sorted the group by ethnicity and gender, viscerally demonstrating inequality.

Minorities here usually do not fare as well as my wife and I did. Minority individuals, least of all Native Americans on whose ancestral lands Durango stands, rarely appear before City Council. Affordable housing is a perennial concern, made acute by the COVID-19-driven migration of urbanites newly mobilized by remote work. Disadvantaged people experience the high cost of housing even more acutely than most.

Residents frequently articulate awareness that Durango is a “real town.” Enhancing this sense of place is an explicit City Council goal. Can all of us, who conceive ourselves as having become native, maintain this valued character? Will today’s newcomers, especially second homeowners, embrace it? Can we broaden that sense of place to include all our neighbors, including those whose ancestors were the original natives?