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A a reflection of the Fall Event from Executive Director, Tucker Szymkowicz.

The five of us sat around a picnic table shaded by large willow trees. I was joined by Telluride Institute board members Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk (Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Nation), Rick Chavolla (Kumeyaay Ipai Tribal Nation and Chicano heritage), Kris Holstrom (San Miguel County Commissioner) and Lia Cristadoro (TI Director of the Watershed Education Program and a MEM graduate student at Western Colorado University). Teepee structures and an open oval gathering area stood behind us with people still left mingling from the Fall Event hosted by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Nation and Montezuma Land Conservancy at the Ute Mountain Ute Casino in Towoac on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation near Cortez, CO. The focus of the panel discussion after the screening of “Spirit of the Peaks”, a film by Connor Ryan a Lakota professional skier, was centered on reciprocity, Indigenous rights, identity and native lands. The blessings, food, music, conversations, dancing, panel discussions and film were still fresh in our memories as we looked around the table. We lean in, what next? How do you walk away from an event like today and take action, embody the messages shared and become a more effective and authentic advocate for Indigenous issues?

Coming from a nonprofit background and as the Executive Director of the Telluride Institute (TI) I immediately envisioned programs and projects, both new and old, bringing together our communities and was eager to hear about what these may look like. So when I asked “what next?” to Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk and Rick Chavolla, TI’s two Indigenous board members at the table, I was at first confused by the simplicity of their answer. “Come down here to the reservation, have coffee with us and bring others.”

Coffee was in this case more than coffee, it was an open invitation to come talk, get to know one another and also to visit the reservation. It was the first step, the most important and frequently overlooked step in all good work, relationship building, which hopefully leads to a second step of trust, but first steps first, first coffee.

During the event there were many brief exchanges, introductions and conversations shared as well as food and physical hot coffee which helped warm us on the crisp morning, but the closest I came that day to the coffee suggested by Rick and Regina was a conversation with Regina’s father Norman. At the beginning of the day, Norman had blessed the event, his words spoken in both Ute and English while he burned sweetgrass as an offering. There was a moment during this ceremony that my hair stood on end, tears welled up in my eyes and our eyes locked.

I do not know if this is what brought him over to me later, but all of a sudden he was seated behind me asking me how I liked the film? I turned and again stared into his eyes, said a few words and then listened. Norman shared his story with me, or some of it I should say, I inserted very few comments, just holding his gaze throughout the conversation and listening. I am unsure how much time passed and the contents of his story are his to share, not mine, but when he got up to leave I thanked him for the stories, for coming up and speaking directly to me and sharing those moments. This is my understanding of the meaning of coffee and I look forward to sharing more of it in the near future and helping others to have that same experience. First steps first, first coffee.

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