Home > Travel > Culture Clash: Towaoc to Aspen

Culture Clash: Towaoc to Aspen

private planes in Aspen

Private jets greet your entrance to Aspen

I went into a bit of culture shock last week. I spend Thursday on the reservation town of Towaoc doing vision screenings for 22 three year olds who will be going into head start this fall. On Friday, I was having lunch at the Red Onion in Aspen. I honestly can’t believe these two places are in the same country, let alone the same state. It made me wonder if success is truly based on life circumstances. Maybe where you’re born does dictate your fate in life or is that just an excuse?

Reality on the Reservation

Last week was week two of the school screenings. The first week, I had the four year olds who were finishing up a year of head start. Out of 17 kids, I had one who knew letters. She lives off the reservation and only attends head start there because her mother works for the tribe.

Two of the 39 kids were living at the youth shelter because their parents were in jail or somewhere unknown. More than half had a speech delay. About half were obese. Several had anemia from nutrient deficient diets. About a fourth had been removed from parental care at one time or another for various reasons, mostly involving alcohol abuse and/or violence. I can’t tell you how many kids I see who have very bad prescriptions but never have glasses, even though they are free if you turn in the proper paper work.

Native American children have a 24% high school graduation rate in our school district. So, unless serious progress is made, only 9 of those kids I screened will graduate from high school.

towaoc colorado issues

Entrance to Towaoc

Is Aspen for Real?

I have never lived in Aspen, so I can’t really comment on the children of preschool age. However, we did drive by the school while we were there. Since Jim is in education, he was drooling over their fleet of brand new buses. Their elementary playground looks like something from Disneyland. Aspen had a 100% graduation rate from high school last year. I would argue that the Aspen public school district could take on most private schools as far as academic success and variety of learning environments.

If you go to their school’s website, you’ll notice that they are enrolling for ex-ed classes that seem to be required for all high school students. These are things like a week of kayaking in the Pacific Northwest or a tour of Chicago’s art and culture scene. It looks like these classes tend to average around $600 each. Scholarships are available, but since only 5% of the student body is classified as economically challenged, I bet most don’t need one.

I’m not saying that being born on a reservation means you won’t succeed in life. Likewise, being born in Aspen doesn’t guarantee a carefree ride to easy street. However, you can’t argue with the statistics.

Politics Offers No Solution

If you’ve never experienced tribal politics at work, it’s as bad as Washington. There is lots of posturing and blaming everything and everyone else. Ultimately, no one, including the district, the tribe, or the parents are stepping up to say that they are failing the children. Without some sort of change, we can’t really expect different results.

My very strong feeling is to offer financial incentives, either as payments or increases in assistance for meeting basic human standards like making sure your kids go to school and have regular medical and dental care. If goals are not met, then I think assistance payment should be cut.

I also think the tribe needs to utilize more positive role models that youth could be exposed to on a regular basis. Maybe finding people who are willing to share their experience about how they came from similar circumstances to find success would be a good idea. The tribe has LOTS of money from their casino, oil and gas royalties, farm subsidies, and their construction company. It is a shame more of that money isn’t used toward promoting education and proactive support from a very young age. Realistically, you still get your monthly check whether you graduate from high school or not. I think that’s a shame. Until people expect more from themselves, whatever I expect is irrelevant.

It’s easy for me to think I can solve all the world’s problems. Some days I need to remind myself  to mind my own business, but I think it’s really important to understand how much disparity exists between certain parts of this country. I know there are children in other countries that are in much worse shape, but this is right on my doorstep, and I see it every week.

It would be a fun experiment to take a handful of people from each area and do a swap. I’d love to see some of the rez kids get to fly on one of the  private jets that greet you upon arrival to Aspen. I’d really love to see some Aspenites have to eat at the gas station, which doubles as the only restaurant in Towaoc. I don’t think they have organic quinoa and wild caught salmon on the menu.

Do you ever experience culture shock? Is there hope if you’re born into difficult circumstances?

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. Kim, I loved this post, it’s always cool to see someone raising awareness about under-privileged areas.

    When I was a teenager I went on a short-term missions trip with my church to a small town in Colombia, South America. We walked through barrios where people lived in cinder-block houses with dirt floors, within sight of a major city. It was a stark reality for a 14-year-old who had grown up in relative wealth to wrestle with, and I appreciate my dad taking me with him.

    What do you think is the best way to provide help for the folks on the reservation? I doubt it’s through giving money, but maybe it is? Or is it volunteer tutor’s/mentors? Just curious to hear your thoughts.

    • I think they need to find a way to make people in that situation take ownership. When you get free housing, free health care, a check every month, and just about anything else you need as far as day care, food, etc from various organizations, those things have no value. We always are amazed at how nicely people dress and how well they clean and take care of their cars. These are really the only items they can get no help with and have to purchase on their own, so there is value to that. If you could transfer that to school or health, I think it would make a huge difference. A monthly check doesn’t do very much to reward or punish you for your behavior.

  2. Good post Kim! I don’t know what the solution is, and unfortunately some level of politics is going to play into it which just takes away from the issue. What’s sad is that situations like this tend to impact the kids the most which is a shame. With that in mind though, I do think there is hope if you’re born into a tough situation. I don’t know how probable it is, but it’s certainly possible.

    • There are kids who succeed, but they leave. I can’t imagine they would ever stay where they grew up, but I wish they could hire someone to at least consult with the kids on a paid basis to show them what’s possible.

  3. Kim…great post and very eye-opening! I do think there is a lot of disparity and those “rez” kids definitely face a lot of obstacles. While it possible to still succeed, it is incredibly tough when you have no role models, no resources and not much help. It’s truly a sad situation when the leaders bicker and really are looking out only for their own interests.

    • It’s extremely frustrating to see all the round and round and no real change. It’s always been that way is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot.

  4. Wow. What a difference. We had a similar situation in Detroit. You could see the line between Detroit and Grosse Pointe even in the pavement. The second you crossed the line you went from one of the worst areas in America to one of the nicest, all within walking distance of each other.

  5. That must be crazy to witness that kind of duality. I remember when I was in high school kids from my school switched with kids in inner city Detroit. I do think you are already off to a good start if you are born into a good family living in a good location. I think though that some don’t even realize it and piss it all away because they don’t realize how good they have it. That’s tragic. I feel bad for the kids on the rez that they have to almost try to preserver on their own. It’s a shame there are a lot of politics going on. 🙁

    • I have one young patient, maybe 10 or 11 now, who jumped in front of a bullet to save his Grandma from being shot by his brother in law. How on earth can you concentrate on school with that kind of drama in your life?

  6. I don’t know the answer either, but I think the fact that you get to go there every week means that you can be one of those positive role models that you’re talking about. It sounds like the kids you are screening are really young, but that means that they’re impressionable, and someone like you who truly cares about their well being can make a really positive impact in their lives.

    • I don’t know that my influence goes very far but I do try to tell everyone who will listen that the best thing they can do for themselves is stay in school.

  7. Wow…unfortunately no solution is perfect. The responsibilities of the parents just aren’t being met. And people who don’t want to be motivated can’t be. It’s so sad that these people – the children especially – are set up for failure like that

    • It really takes no sort of qualification to have a kid. I can’t think of any other thing so important that doesn’t require any sort of training.

  8. Wow that is crazy. We went to Aspen on our trip and we noticed how different it was as well.

    I still think there is hope for those who have a disadvantage. Yes, it is hard, but it is possible. When I was little, I lived in Chicago and the “good school” across the street from our home was full, so I wasn’t able to enroll until the following year. That means that I had to go to an inner city school in Chicago. I am still friends with some of those people on Facebook (even though I only knew them for a few months when I was in THIRD grade haha). Most of them are actually doing very well with their lives, and many are even doing better than those who lived in the suburbs of Missouri with me. They were a very determined group and I think that is important.

    • That’s encouraging that your friends made it out and did OK. I think it can be done by anyone. It just takes much more work if you start with a disadvantage.

  9. I used to live in Florida and a very large tribe there was a client of ours and I was always shocked by the politics and decision making process that they went through. I know that some tribes are run a little better than others, but I don’t think on the whole they are well-run groups throughout the country and it is sad for the children more than anything.

  10. “Aspen had a 100% graduation rate from high school last year.” That’s pretty incredible. I’d say the closest thing I can compare to your experience on the reservation is a trip I made to Juarez, Mexico. It was my first time outside the US and it was pretty eye-opening. We stayed at a children’s home for a week and it saddened me to think how much of a need there is in Juarez for stable environments, and how poor and violent Juarez can be.

    Compare that to even Minneapolis-St. Paul, especially some of the posh suburbs with huge, updated, houses and swimming pools.

    • I guess you can be culture shocked in any region of the country. Yes, the 100% graduation rate is outstanding, but I’m sure they have their issues as well. When you put uber rich kids with the ones whose parents are middle class, it makes the middle class ones feel like second class citizens. I’ve know several people who went to high school in Telluride and it’s odd even for them to go to school with kids driving Porches.

  11. That is the problem with giving enough handouts to ‘get by’. Once people do not have to work for a living, they get lazy and get satisfied. Their ambition is destroyed. You can see it in many major cities too, not just the reservation.

    There are plenty of examples, mine included, where people started with next to nothing and made it much better. I never feel sorry for people with no ambition, I just use it as a motivator for myself.

    • I’ve always said that being given things for free over a long period of time creates no value. I think that’s a huge reason they don’t generally pay attention to health because all the care is free and they take it for granted.

  12. “Until people expect more from themselves, whatever I expect is irrelevant.” This statement is so important, Kim, to what you’ve seen both at the tribe and at Aspen. Growing up quite poor (by U.S. standards)I never really thought too much about my future, except I knew that I wanted more. Then, when I got a job, I realized that I did have at least some control over my future (a teacher in my inner city troubled high school suggested I enter the OJT program because I sure as hell wasn’t doing anyone any good in school – including myself). That job led to other jobs (I am a hard worker) and as I chose to observe people I came in contact with, I realized that there was a better life out there. I didn’t understand exactly how it worked, and I still thought on some level that a person’s success was based on the luck they had in getting a job that paid good cash, but it did open my eyes to the fact that I did have choices. I completely agree that these kids need positive role models. It says something about the adults in the community too (both the teachers and parents) if the kids are coming off a year of Head Start and haven’t learned anything. 🙁

    • Yes, it says tons, and I have a really hard time with the fact that so many of these kids never have a book at home and get all their language from SpongeBob.

  13. It is pretty hard to get out of a bad situation as a child. I just bought a few dozen books for the kids in my village, so when they go to my computer classes they leave with a book and return it the next week. Most 10 year olds are having a hard time reading books with big letters, simple words and a lot of images. In the village their only hope is to be hired as a builder or gardener, otherwise they’ll be left to cultivate a small parcel and have barely enough to live by. Teachers go on strike regularly or don’t do their hours so they don’t even get the full curriculum over the school year. In the capital city they have a better chance, even in public school. I doubt it will change soon.

    • Whatever challenges kids here face, they all are a million times more lucky than ones in that situation. I wish there was a way to make them appreciate their opportunities more.

  14. I have traveled all over the world and have seen this kind of economic disparity often. I am more and more convinced that the luck of your birth determines your economic outcome in life. If you are born dirt poor, you have to work so much harder just to survive that you end up never really getting anyplace. The developmental economists have a term for it. They call it the S-curve. IF you are born underneath the S, you might just as well forget it.

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