Ernest House Jr. served as executive director of Colorado's Commission of Indian Affairs for the last 11 years. He's the first member of the Mountain Ute tribe to hold the position since the commission was created in 1976. But at the end of September, he stepped down to take over as senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center.
Ernest House Jr. spoke with KUNC's Kyra Buckley before leaving his post.
Kyra Buckley, KUNC: Colorado is the only state where the lieutenant governor chairs the Commission of Indian Affairs. What are some of the challenges that come with getting administrations up to speed on Native American issues in Colorado?
Ernest House, Jr.: A lot of people don't know that our lieutenant governor of the state of Colorado has the statutory responsibility to chair the Indian Affairs Commission. A lot of times when these folks get in office they need to be updated about where we are about tribal issues.
Native American issues didn't start in 1870, they didn't start in 1776. Tribes have always been around here. When we talk about transportation, when we talk about housing, when we talk about public safety going across southwestern Colorado, we have to be aware that there's tribal laws, tribal nations -- sovereign nations -- that have different laws that apply to their lands.
Buckley: In 2015 the governor created a task force to specifically look at mascots. You were on that task force - tell me about it.
House: I don't think people realize that we have over 30 schools -- K-to-12 public schools -- that uses some kind of depiction of a Native American, and it's usually some kind of mascot, a caricature, a logo. This commission went to four different schools -- Strasburg, Loveland, Eaton, and Larimer -- and then gave some recommendations at the end. It's been fascinating to see and keep in touch with the schools that are either still having the conversation today, or even creating better partnerships.
Buckley: American Indian history is (often) written by non-native people. How do you approach that, not just at schools but at historical sites, too?
House: I think that's one thing that I deal with every day. (...) I think a lot of it it has to start with that education, it has to start with that awareness. And it's not our approach -- at least not mine, in the conversation -- to make people feel bad about this. We understand the policies, and some of us know too well the federal tribal relationship, that has put American Indians on reservations, forced tribes out of our state. And that's a dark history that's a difficult thing to think about.
I've heard from a lot of people, "Well, you know, you should go and get over it." It's important that we're aware of that so that we can learn from history. We should be getting better, in my opinion, as a society. I think a lot of that is bringing different perspectives -- not just my perspective, not just my tribe's perspective -- but 47 other tribes' perspectives, community perspectives, cities and municipalities around the state, and building a better relationship on what that looks like moving forward.