FORT DUCHESNE — In Mexico, they speak of "The Black Legend" and "The White Legend."

The Black Legend is a dark one, telling how the Spaniards destroyed the noble Aztec culture and replaced it with a culture of self-indulgence based on the European model.

The White Legend spins things the other way. The Spaniards brought the wonders of the world to a primitive people and ushered them into modern civilization.

Utah's Northern Utes have similar discussions.

The Uintah Utes (as they're sometimes called) once made their homeland in Utah Valley. And so more than other tribes they had the good fortune — and misfortune — of living near a group of immigrants intent on modernizing the American West.

And in that exchange, the tribe feels it has come out both winning and losing.

"The negative influences come to mind first," said Forrest Cuch, director of the state's Division of Indian Affairs and a member of the Ute Tribe. "Alcoholism and other drugs come to mind. Bad diet — sugar, lard, white flour. The pollution of the air and the earth haven't helped.

"As for good influences, I think of education — when provided appropriately, clean technology and modern techniques in art that the Indians have adopted and enhanced."

For generations, being a Ute has meant living with many trade-offs. The tribe's history, in fact, is a tale of accommodation and forced compromise.

The state is named for the Utes, or Yutas, a name derived from Spanish that many say once meant "meat eaters." After several skirmishes with the Utes, the western "Euro-American" immigrants persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to sign a decree moving the Utes out of the Provo Valley and into the Uinta Basin. Today, the Northern Utes number slightly more than 3,000 and oversee 1.3 million acres of trust land.

In an essay for the book "A History of Utah's American Indians," Ute writer Clifford Duncan summed up the current state of affairs this way:

"Even though the Ute Tribe is one of the major economic contributors to the Uinta Basin and the state, the tribe experiences the lingering problems associated with having been proclaimed sovereign yet not being treated as such by the county, state and federal entities. . . . In the past, national politics and economic trends have determined what is good for the Utes. Now, a different approach is needed, based upon the needs and desires of the Ute people."

On the Ute reservation at Fort Duchesne, Larry Cesspooch, public relations officer for the tribe, feels the frustrations of being "sort of sovereign." He also feels, in a very personal way, the tension between the "old" ways and the "new" ways.

Without the advent of the "modern world," he would never have found his passion: documentary filmmaking. But it is also the modern world that has wiped out so many of the things he'd love to capture on film.

"When I was young, I wanted to be a hippy," Cesspooch said. "I wanted to be with the right people, smoke the right stuff. Then I went to Vietnam and my true heritage was all I had to hold on to. I think the heart, mind and spirit of the Ute people are the same as they have always been. Only the objects around them have changed."

To drive the point home, Cesspooch gave a Deseret News reporter a guided tour of the reservation. The tour began with lunch in the deli section of the Ute-run supermarket. Maxine Natchees and Madeleine Martinez were there. On the outside, they looked like two "club ladies" pausing for lunch. But on the inside, the club they belonged to was a very ancient one.

"What I miss from the past is the closeness and caring of our people," Natchees said. "It's not that people don't care now; it's just we all have our own lives. Maybe that's how it is all over America. The school system pushed us along. We're in the mainstream now. And much of the simplicity is gone."

Some Native Americans refer to Indians who are "red" on the outside but "white" on the inside as "apple Indians." But for many Indians, just the opposite is true. They may adopt the trappings of the white man on the outside, but inside they remain true to their legacy.

Maxine Natchees is such a soul.

The tour pressed on, passing the ruins of the old military base, Fort Duchesne. At the military stockade, Cesspooch paused to ask the indulgence of the spirits there. At a living center for the elderly, Irene Cuch recalled going to school in a rowboat every morning and talked about her days in boarding school. She saw education as a gift from the white immigrants, though being forced to go to boarding school to obtain it seemed — and still seems — like a dirty trick.

Always the "accommodations," the light and dark sides of the story.

She also regretted not being allowed to speak her native language in school. It was, she says, as if the school district was afraid to let her be what she was at heart.

At the root of most racial discrimination, in fact, one can usually find fear. And with the Indian people, public aversion is fueled by several factors.

For instance, Forrest Cuch says that most American Indians are rather tender-hearted, but a trick of genetics has given their faces the look of fierce and mean-spirited souls. Linda Myers of the Adopt-a-Native-Elder program says popular culture hasn't helped much, either. When she travels around to schools to talk about Indians with children who have never met an American Indian, the first question she gets is: "Aren't you afraid of them?"

For decades, Hollywood movies and popular novels have been determined to portray Indians as angry and belligerent. And though issues of racial discrimination against American Indians don't always get the high-profile media coverage as discrimination against other ethnic groups, attorney Brian Barnard, who has represented American Indians in racial grievances, says it is still out there.

"Just the fact we have a nationally known football team that uses a racial slur for its name shows that there is still a lack of sensitivity in the greater community," Barnard said. "In San Juan County, about 50 percent of the population is Native American, but they don't run the schools or operate the hospitals. So, that tells me there isn't equality. Power is still in the white man's hands."

One reason discrimination against American Indians may not carry the high profile it does with other groups is because of the makeup and nature of Indian people themselves. Many are brought up to see complaining as a weakness and to see putting personal interest above others as a fault.

"We don't seek the white man's glory," said Waya Ge-tlv-hv-s-di, an elder in the Utah Native American Church. "We don't feel territorial. If you're ever around groups of us, you'll find we have two strong cultural traits. We don't have the same concept of ownership the white man has, and we don't talk a lot. We're very quiet. We prefer to absorb our surroundings rather than comment on them."

For such reasons, Cuch says, mainstream Americans often feel guilty for their treatment of the Indians, but they don't always feel pressed to rectify wrongs.

"Our state turns a deaf ear to many things," he said. "And you can't do that. We have to deal with discrimination in ways that people can be healed, in ways they can overcome emotional suffering."

He is talking about the white man's suffering for his treatment of American Indians as well as the pain of his own people. Cuch's position is simple: The white man needs to be healed every bit as much as the native people. He says in Utah, especially, the Indian people have been historically seen as having a curse on them. But that attitude has only served as an excuse to do nothing.

"The whole community needs to come together, learn and heal," he said.

The upside is he believes that is already happening.

And so does attorney Barnard.

"When new sports teams are formed, we no longer use racial terms," he said. "People are beginning to realize there is an offense there. I think to a large extent it is an educational process. Things are changing."

Meanwhile, on the Ute Reservation, Cesspooch slowly brings his tour of Ute territory to a close. He ends where he began, at the Bottle Hollow Resort, a once ambitious resort that is now being transformed into a Ute cultural center. The fact the trip has come full circle is not lost on Cesspooch, the filmmaker.

"I'm a storyteller," he said. "But these days storytelling is not about the grandparents with the grandkids around them; today, storytelling is about video, the Internet, puppet shows. I've come to understand that we are never going back to that 'old time' again. What we have to do is see where things are going and get out in front."

Echoes Duncan in his writing: "With a strong tribal government structure founded in traditional culture, the Ute Tribe can move forward, united and free to determine its own destiny."

In short, despite difficulties, the Ute people are confident they will eventually put to rest both the White Legend and Black Legend that has clung to their race.


Coming Thursday: Shoshones and the Holy Ground

E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com