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First-grade student RedSky Lang draws on the whiteboard during a Ute language vocabulary game led by Betty Howe, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal elder and Ute language teacher. Photos by Shannon Mullane / Special to The Colorado Trust

Twelve miles south of Cortez, in the southwest corner of Colorado, a right turn on Mike Wash Road leads three miles up to the town of Towaoc on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation.

Towaoc is pronounced toy-awk. The town is due east of the cliffs that form the “toes” of the sacred Sleeping Ute Mountain, a 9,984-foot peak with a profile that is said to resemble a Ute Indian chief resting on his back with his arms folded. About 1,200 people live in Towaoc. It’s 22 miles as the crow flies to the Four Corners National Monument.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe manages a 7,700-acre farm and ranch. The tribe runs a casino, hotel, and a gas station and travel center along the highway. There are plans to build a tribe-owned grocery store. Towaoc has a 54-bed prison, run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and a U.S. Post Office.

And now, a school.

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