Wise Words
A moment with spiritual elder Clifford Duncan, a healer and cultural liaison for the Tabeguache band of the Northern Ute Nation

By Jena Hofstedt
Photo courtesy of World Council of Elders

Q. Would you tell us a bit about the history of the Ute Nation?

A. The Ute tribe is part of the Shoshonian Utoaztec language group of the Great Basin tribes, which were centered in Nevada and the surrounding states. We have been in our area for 5,000 years or longer. Through excavations, we’ve found artifacts that are actually 8,000 to 10,000 years old. We were one of the largest language groups in the Western Hemisphere at one time. That is our prehistory. At present we have three reservations, two in Colorado and one in Utah. I’m in Utah on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation.

Q. Can you tell us what your day-to-day life is like on the reservation?

A. We live like everyone around us. We follow Tribal and State laws. We all live a lot like non-Indians. However, some of us are trying to preserve our traditions, culture, and language, so it doesn’t get swallowed up and lost. We have learned to survive in this new world.

Q. What is the role of an indigenous elder in today’s modern American culture?

A. Most Native Americans have drifted from what used to be, when our people were actually living a community life, and the spiritual connection was strong. Today we do not have that, because we are broken up into many different parts. Those who are interested in going back still have the resource of the tribal elders. But there is only a handful [of elders left] in all of Indian country.

Q. You are also a healer. Is that the same as being a medicine man?

A. Native Americans do not accept the title of medicine man or spiritual man or doctor. Those are words given to them by an outsider. We are practitioners—one who carries spiritual teachings from one generation to the next and passes them on to their children and grandchildren. [Practitioners] do not necessarily possess spiritual power, but they pass it on. They are like mediators. Credit goes to the higher level, which is the spirit and God.

Q. What is your philosophy regarding the state of the world—how can we live in harmony with each other?

A. When a group begins to move forward with the idea that they are going to be leading, they are actually going against other groups. But we should all be moving together in the same direction at the same pace. Respect for cultures, respect for people, are a basis for being at the same level. Today, our world is a material world; the more money I have, the more power I have. When a man has power over all things in this world, does that mean man has dominance over man, too? I don’t think so. The modern material world has misinterpreted religious teachings from the Bible in order to gain dominance over many other cultures and the natural environment for its own material advantage. Each of us has a little thing called ego that is leading us away from the spiritual center of the universe. And that’s why we have problems. These problems have been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years. I don’t think there’s an end to that. At least I can’t see it. It’s going to take generations. The next generation can be taught differently.

Q. What do you hope to teach others about the Earth?

A. The one message that I would like to share with everyone is that we are all connected by one Earth, one Sun, and we all come from one Spirit. Sometimes you read about how indigenous people have no god and no concept of god or anything that’s out there. That’s not true. The thing we’re trying to tell the world is our way of life has always been connected to nature. And nature is a high level of spirit. We have to take care of all things that are related to us—nature, the world, and, in short, ecology. That makes a human. That makes a man what he is. To destroy that, we are actually destroying ourselves.

—Jena Hofstedt