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Remembering Clifford Duncan

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He called me and asked what the weather was like in Greece. Puzzled by his question, mine was “Why are you concerned about things in Greece?”

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”Could you look it up on the computer for me?” he answered.

Knowing he didn’t have a computer my answer was “Sure Clifford I’ll look it up for you.”

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Before asking another question he said, “I need to know what I should wear. I’m flying to Athens to bring the Olympic torch to Atlanta for the games.”

It wouldn’t be first or last time Northern Ute Elder Clifford Duncan would be an ambassador of international good will.

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A picture on my wall is of Clifford in his full colorful regalia … eagle feather bonnet and all standing next to the Dali Lama who has a big smile on his face holding both Clifford’s hand and his ceremonial fan.

They met while Clifford was practicing for his grand entry into the opening ceremonies of the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

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His stage was the world but he loved the Flat Tops and the Roaring Fork Valley, his ancestral homeland from which his People, the Nuche, had been forcibly removed to the deserts of Utah over 150 years ago.

He came to not only reconnect with what he knew to be a sacred landscape but to also share his culture and his story so that we would not forget our intertwined history.

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“Bill you can take the Utes out of the mountains but you can’t take the mountains out of the Utes,” he once told me.

For 20 years I had the privilege of working with him to help identify and protect special places located on the White River National Forest. Many of those experiences others would call magical have been shared in this column.

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But today’s words are written with a heavy yet grateful heart having just returned from spending a day with his family and friends saying goodbye to the man and the legend.

The celebration started at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church, which he attended his entire life. The testimony of a life lived well was that Clifford never turned down a request for help.

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He could be a rascal, a coyote, a trickster who loved a good joke. But when he did a healing ceremony or when his eagle fan swished the smell of sweet grass over you it was serious business.

Once we were driving to an event to give a talk and Clifford asked me, “Bill, which one of us should be the token Indian today.”

Another time when I was sick with an upper respiratory infection he took me to the Yampa Vapor Caves and did a full sweat for me, his songs echoing off the stone walls.

At the graveside over 100 people gathered under sunny skies with a slight breeze, the promise of spring in the air.

A drum group carried their big drum next to the casket before it was lowered into the ground along with Clifford’s red suitcase.

The drumming felt like the heartbeat of Mother Earth as the drummers sang songs that paid honor to our friend, as did the trilling calls of women scattered among the People.

An Oklahoma Kiowa Elder gave the blessing prayer followed by a speaker who told the story that while the Salt Lake Olympic ice arena was being built, Clifford offered a powerful dedication prayer in the Ute language. All the construction workers stopped what they were doing out of respect.

Clifford left us a life well lived: respect of our humanity, of Mother Earth and for all life.

With more than 35 years of experience in federal land management agencies, Bill Kight of Carbondale shares his stories and concerns with readers every month.