Land of broken promises

Despite Boulder's vocal support for Indigenous peoples, data and residents tell a different story


Through novel analyses of data and interviews with local residents, Sam Becker seeks to understand the extent to which the City of Boulder is living up to its responsibility “to address the past and continuing harm to the Indigenous People”––a responsibility enshrined with the passage of Resolution No. 1190 in 2016. He worked with C.U. Boulder computer science PhD student Nick LaBerge to verify the soundness of the data presented in this story.

“I feel like they’re trying to chase us out,” says Indigo, a Boulder resident from the Mescalero people, who’s just finished his daily ritual of packing up his home to avoid being ticketed for violating Boulder’s camping and tent bans. “It’s all about the image of Boulder: money, and high-class living,” he says. 

Boulder’s Indigenous residents were 42 times more likely to be homeless than white residents during 2019 and 2020, according to Census data and city-specific Metro Denver Homeless Initiative data (see calculations and sources here During these years, an average of 13 percent of Boulder’s Indigenous residents were homeless, while an average of 0.3 percent of Boulder’s white residents were homeless. Underpinning these results is a largely ignored history of land and resource dispossession––often referred to as settler colonialism––and genocide of Indigenous peoples and their cultures, as well as the discriminatory housing, economic, and social policies built on this area’s foundation of settler colonialism and genocide.

The same data show that Indigenous residents in Denver were 9.5 times more likely to be homeless than the city’s white residents in 2019, and that Indigenous residents in Longmont were 11.5 times more likely to be homeless than the city’s white residents during 2019 and 2020. These results suggest that the City of Boulder is unique, but not alone, in its failure to address the inequalities stemming from settler colonialism and genocide, and that the policies the city recently passed to criminalize homelessness are indirectly perpetuating legacies of settler colonialism and genocide.

“Policies that criminalize homelessness . . . may not be exclusively anti-Indigenous, but the effects of these policies are because our people make up such a disproportionate piece of [those experiencing] homelessness,” says Mateo Parsons, Board Chair for Four Winds American Indian Council, who comes from the Warm Springs Apache, Yaqui, and Tarahumara peoples. 

In 2016, the City of Boulder passed a resolution intended to begin amending the relationship with Indigenous nations and peoples. Resolution No. 1190 declared that the city has “responsibility . . . to address the past and continuing harm to the Indigenous People and the land.” Developed in consultation with federally recognized tribes, the resolution established Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day, facilitated a process to rename Settlers Park, and encouraged the development of curricula and resources that accurately reflect past harms. 

Sam Becker

In 2021, the City of Boulder glided into its sixth annual celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. After five years of deliberation, the city agreed to change the name of Settlers Park to Peoples’ Crossing, and agreed to work with representatives from federally recognized tribes to create a land acknowledgment. 

At the same time, it was also named the best place to live in the U.S. for the second year in a row.

On a warm November morning, Indigo is relaxing on the grass in Boulder’s Central Park. A police car slowly approaches, and Indigo springs into action. In a commanding, controlled tone that denotes his years in the military, he yells towards a solitary tent 10 yards away: “The pigs just rolled by, get your tent down!” 

Amid housing crises, a global pandemic, and an impending eviction boom, homelessness continues to grow. Across the West, from Medford, Oregon to Albuquerque, New Mexico, cities look to criminalization as a solution.

After an aggressive anti-homeless campaign waged by Safer Boulder—a group with strong ties to Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold—city councilors ushered in laws banning camping, tents, and even propane. Despite the lack of evidence that criminalizing the homeless reduces homelessness, Boulder City Council opted to allocate nearly $3 million to further criminalize homelessness without a clear plan to track its effectiveness. 

Indigo, who lives in a tent, feels that he and other residents experiencing homelessness are being swept away with the goal of turning Boulder into an epicenter of “high-class living” for urban elites looking for a lifestyle upgrade. Boulder’s homeless residents, Indigo remarks, are often derided as criminal “transients.” But transience does not exist in a vacuum: It’s a cycle produced by the violent transience of white settlers and perpetuated by policy failures, like gentrification, unaffordable housing, and disinvestment in social safety nets.

Although the police don’t stop to ticket the person who was awakened by Indigo’s shout, Indigo says it’s ridiculous that people sheltering in tents either have to “violate their own human rights” or “have an encounter with the cops.” 

Boulder’s history stands out for its brutality. Some of the area’s dozens of Indigenous communities were ravaged by the Indian slave trade for hundreds of years prior to the coercive treaties, blood-caked gold rushes, and massacres of the 1800s. When gold was discovered in Colorado in the late 1850s, white settlers violently broke the Fort Laramie Treaty and the governor issued a proclamation of genocide.

Under this proclamation of genocide, U.S. soldiers slaughtered 300-800 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre—a death count that likely downplayed or denied that women, children, and elderly noncombatants were included, according to the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation. David Nichols, who served as Boulder County Sheriff and had a University of Colorado Boulder residence hall named after him in 1961, led 46 Boulderites into the massacre, all of whom received a hero’s welcome upon return.

“They took everything and gave nothing back,” says Indigo. Fast-forward 157 years, he says, and city councilors talk about “helping” and “celebrating” Indigenous peoples, “but they do nothing: spin doctors, that’s what city councilors are, they’re all spin doctors.”

Parsons, of the Warm Springs Apache, Yaqui, and Tarahumara peoples, connects the broken treaties and massacres to the present when he hears about the removal of camps lining creeks and public parks in Boulder and other cities along the Front Range. “Now, you have governments of those cities that were illegally established in the first place saying that Native people don’t have the right to camp on lands that are legally their homelands and removing them from those places,” he says, incensed. “There’s a direct corollary there, and a direct legacy that these policies are continuing.”

At the City of Boulder’s Housing Equity Symposium on November 8, 2021, Clay Fong, Community Relations Manager for the City of Boulder’s Department of Human Services, stood in front of an Ibram X. Kendi quote projected on a huge screen that read, “A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups.” 

Fong, who aimed to show how racist land use policies created during Boulder’s founding influence current housing unaffordability and lack of racial diversity, said Boulder’s history of unaffordability began in 1859 when members of the Boulder City Town Company divided the area that’s now Boulder between themselves and sold the rest for $1,000 an acre. During this time, agricultural land to the east and north of Boulder was selling for about $1.25 an acre.

The honesty and commitment to action in Fong’s presentation were striking: The city recognizes it was founded on racist policies that have contributed to Boulders’s racial inequities, and it is taking some antiracist actions, like ensuring 15 percent of all housing is permanently affordable by 2035, to produce racial equity on the housing front.

As Indigo sits on the concrete across from Deacons’ Closet, he explains that he is tired of the city council doing “studies on why housing is so expensive for the wealthy. What about the homeless?” City council should build or acquire permanent housing, better shelters, tiny home villages, and campgrounds, and do it with input from homeless people, he says.

The City of Boulder has not acknowledged the connection between racist policies of forced removal and the disproportionately high rates of Indigenous homelessness that exist here. As a result, it has not taken actions, like ending anti-homeless policies and providing a variety of low-barrier services, to produce racial equity on the homelessness front.

“The point of the camping ban is to say our public spaces are not appropriate for living in,” says Boulder Mayor Aaron Brockett. While Brockett now says that “criminalization is not the right approach,” he voted in July of this year for a now-enacted policy that makes sleeping in a tent on city property a ticketable offense. 

To address disproportionate Indigenous homelessness, Brockett says the city “need[s] to provide more service options for people who don’t have homes.” To date, the city council has struck down efforts to increase services, including a sanctioned campground that Brockett supported.

Prior to the enactment of the tent and propane bans, 2019 and 2020 data from Boulder Municipal Court show that Indigenous homeless residents in Boulder were up to an average of 16 times more likely to be ticketed for non-violent offenses than Indigenous housed residents—with over 80 percent of the tickets being from offenses that are difficult to avoid while homeless, like camping, possession of alcohol, and trespassing (see calculations and sources here: 

“Police have become more aggressive in their removal and ticketing of homeless people since the city [enacted] the tent ban,” laments Indigo. “It’s just cruel and inhumane.” He says he sees parallels between the ways that police dominate, control, and threaten vulnerable people today and the ways that white settlers colonized and massacred his ancestors.

When Kurt Firnhaber, Director of Housing and Human Services for City of Boulder, is asked if he is concerned that these policies are undermining the city’s efforts to address the past and continuing harm to the Indigenous peoples, he dodges, saying, “I think one thing we all need to agree on is [that] we shouldn’t have individuals living out on the street, and we need to get people into housing . . . If every city across the U.S. was approaching homelessness the way the City of Boulder is, we wouldn’t have homelessness in our country.”

Firnhaber argues that these policies reduce homelessness because they require people who have been ticketed for nonviolent offenses to interface with service providers as they make their way through the municipal court. 

“That’s a clever justification,” says Jennifer Livovich, a longtime Boulder resident with a history of homesslessness, but these policies “don’t meet people where they’re at,” and “not everyone receiving a citation engages with the municipal court system.” 

While Livovich applauds the Boulder Municipal Court’s new community court program and the city’s Housing First approach to homelessness, she notes that the latter only covers about 15 percent of the homeless community (the rate was 11.7 percent in 2021, according to city data), meaning that a large number of homeless residents are still faced with consistent removal and ticketing—actions that perpetuate the racial inequities from settler colonialism and genocide.

Feet Forward’s Tuesday distribution. Photo: Jennifer Livovich

Indigo says he feels that the “police target us,” and not because they want to help them with services. The message the city is sending is clear, he says: “They don’t want us here.” He adds that he and others haven’t stopped camping because they don’t have any other suitable options. 

Livovich’s nonprofit organization, Feet Forward, feeds, clothes, and provides resources to over 100 homeless residents, including Indigo, each Tuesday at Boulder’s Central Park. No tickets are written to force them here, they come because they want to, according to Livovich. 

Indigo is hoping the city builds a centralized navigation center and day shelter where he and others can access all of the resources and community provided by Feet Forward every day, plus shelter from the elements, hygiene, secure storage, mail services, financial services, internet, and computer access, electricity, and other resources. 

Boulder has a night shelter, Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, but Indigo doesn’t stay there. When he returned to Boulder last year after a decades-long absence, he tried to access the shelter, but says he was told to leave the city because he hadn’t lived here for six months––a process called diversion that still disproportionately funnels homeless people of color out of the city, per data provided by Firnhaber. These sorts of barriers, say researchers from Common Sense Institute’s Homelessness Ecosystem Analysis team, reduce the likelihood that someone will use services in the future.

“I felt like a third-class citizen,” Indigo says of his experience at the shelter. While Homeless Solutions for Boulder County lifted the residency requirement this summer after the ACLU deemed it unconstitutional, Indigo doesn’t feel comfortable staying there. He says he gave the shelter a try but was repulsed by the way staff bullied residents, the lack of transparency around the rules, the lack of privacy, and the lack of cleanliness. It’s “like a prison,” he says.

Winter this time around will be more difficult for Indigo. He recently broke his foot and is supporting himself on a knee that needs surgery. He says he’s interested in the limited number of hotel vouchers the shelter is offering this winter. He’d also like to see the city create a safe outdoor camping space—developed with input from people who might be living there—where he can camp until he gets a house or a van.

Thirty miles away, Denver’s newest safe outdoor space is slated to open in late November. The project was spearheaded by a group of Indigenous homeless residents who were forcefully removed by Denver police for violating the city’s camping ban earlier this summer. According to Mateo Parsons, over 10 Denver-based urban Indian nonprofits are “building a community safety net” around this camp to make sure that residents have access to culturally relevant services.

Parsons is grateful that the city listened to the demands of this group, but “ultimately,” he says, “this is a short-term solution, and the longer term solution is permanent housing, specifically Native-preference housing. It’s essential to make sure that Native people can live in kinship with each other, and that’s what we see this Native-inclusive SOS site opening the door to.”

When Indigo is asked what he thinks of the city’s efforts to address past and continuing harms to Indigenous peoples, he shakes his head in disdain. “When can we have our land back? Even though you tainted it, can we please have our land back?”

In 2021, the City of Boulder celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day, changed the name of Settlers Park to Peoples’ Crossing, and entered into consultations with representatives from federally recognized tribal nations with ancestral ties to Boulder to create a land acknowledgement and determine next steps on a host of issues, from landback efforts to participation by tribes that are not federally recognized.

David Atekpatzin Young, who comes from the Apache, Pueblo, and Genízaro peoples, is frustrated that his tribe, Genízaro Affiliated Nations, has been left out of these consultations because they lack recognition from the federal government—a bureaucratic nightmare that Young says can require tribes to spend millions of dollars and decades of research to prove their Indigeneity.

When Sasha Strong, tribal attorney for and member of Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and the former co-chair of Boulder’s Police Oversight Panel, is asked if she thinks members of federally unrecognized tribes with ancestral ties to Boulder should be able to participate in consultations, she answers, “Absolutely. This whole [process] to become federally recognized is just settler gatekeeping.”

Young wants a seat at the table so he can more effectively work to ensure all Indigenous peoples in Boulder have unfettered access to land for ceremonial and cultural purposes. These efforts are part of a swelling landback movement, which Young, Strong, and Indigo say goes beyond the transfer of property deeds to include respecting Indigenous rights, stewarding languages and traditions, and securing food sovereignty, housing, and clean air and water. Above all, they say, landback is a rallying cry for dismantling white supremacy and capitalism and legacies of settler colonialism.

“Land acknowledgments are nice, but they aren’t going to put a roof over [our] heads,” says Strong.

The colonial logic that fueled the Sand Creek Massacre 157 years ago is still deeply ingrained within the political and economic systems that exist today. “Indigenous communities continue to be impoverished and targeted for continued violence in all its forms, whether we live on a reservation or in a city,” Young observes.  

In Boulder, where Indigenous peoples now make up just 0.2 percent of the population, the city council has a progressive majority for the first time in recent memory. They say they’re committed to housing and racial justice and more humane, less punitive solutions to homelessness.

Indigo isn’t particularly optimistic. “City councilors are scared,” he says. “They don’t want to be held accountable for their decisions.” 

As bright November sunlight catches strips of reflective material framing a half-dozen backpacks meticulously prepared for winter, Indigo says he and his friends imagine a “kinder version of Boulder” in which they are respected as “full human beings.” For the time being, he says, “this is our sanctuary.”

Sam Becker is an organizer, writer, and researcher living in Boulder, CO

Nick LaBerge is a CU-Boulder computer science PhD student


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