One of my first employers was a neighbor who lived across the street and on the corner. Mrs. Ray would pay me a nickel a day to carry coal and wood in from the shed and help her light her stove, but the best payment was listening to the stories she had to tell about growing up in Manassa.
I wish I could remember more details, but the strength of her spirit and her sense of humor left a powerful impression. I can still see her sitting in her chair with her Folgers coffee can at her side (she loved to chew tobacco, and the can was always nearby so she could spit in it.)
At that time, she was one of the oldest people in town, but her thin frame was vibrant and full of life. She made me laugh each time I visited. She boasted about the outrage she caused when she rode her horse “straddle instead of side-saddle like a proper lady.” People were offended, she said, because her bare ankles showed.
March has been designated as Women’s History Month, and it gives us an opportunity to commemorate the spirit and strength of women like Mrs. Ray for the contributions they have made.
It’s unfortunate that our traditional histories have neglected the important contributions that women have made.
Few of us, for example, know the story of Chipeta, or White Singing Bird. Born a Kiowa Apache, she was raised as a member of the Ute tribe near what is now Conejos. She and her husband, Chief Ouray, used diplomacy in an attempt to achieve peace between the tribes in the area and the white settlers.
The 1880’s were troubling times in the area, and Chipeta travelled to Washington, DC, several times to act as a delegate for her tribe in lobbying the US Congress. The federal government had been trying to get the Utes to abandon their nomadic lifestyle, give up racing their horses, and become farmers. The tribe resisted, and were growing frustrated as their precious game herds were being depleted.
The tensions erupted into violence, and after what has been called “The Meeker Massacre,” Chipeta and her fellow delegates barely escaped being lynched when they attempted to board a train leaving Alamosa. The party was hoping to negotiate a new treaty in Washington, DC, and to testify at a Congressional inquiry into the “Ute Uprising.”
Chipeta not only had nothing to do with the Meeker Massacre, but she was instrumental in negotiating for the release of three women and two children who had been taken captive.
In March of 1880, Chipeta did testify before a Congressional committee. Unfortunately, later that year, the Congress passed the Ute Removal Act of 1880, and Chipeta was forced to leave the Valley for a reservation in Utah. Later that year, partially due to the hardships of the forced move, her husband died.
Chipeta continued to lead her people and was highly regarded and respected for her wisdom until her death in 1924.
And this remarkable woman is only one of many deserving recognition in our history.