Ute History & Culture

“People of the Shining Mountains”

Story by Samantha Tisdel Wright
All content © San Juan Publishing Group, Inc, All rights reserved.

[SW Colorado] “The old days will never be again, even as a man will never again be as a child.” — Traditional saying on wall of the Ute Indian Museum, Montrose, Colorado.

CJ Brafford, a Lakota Oglala Sioux, had a vision at age nine that she would be the “carekeeper of belongings of the past.” Today, she is the director of the Ute Indian Museum, the only museum dedicated to preserving and honoring the culture of the three remaining tribes of Ute Indians. A visit with CJ and a trip to the museum she directs with such care and thoughtfulness, is a good place to start learning about the history of the Utes. Brafford is able to capture the essence of traditional Ute culture in a way that books written by white historians can’t quite manage. “They were simple people,” she reflected. “They lived on Mother Earth, eating what she offered, surrounded by the seasons, following the seasons.”

They called themselves Noochew, which simply means “the people.” The mountains which sustained their life they called “the Shining Mountains.” At one time they had names for, stories about, and relationships with every mountain, river, lake, cliff, and meadow across most of Colorado and the surrounding area. Yet they lived so lightly upon the land that, apart from rarely discovered human remains or prehistoric campfire circles, they essentially left no trace when white encroachment forced them onto reservations in the 1870s.

“The Utes were the only true residents of Colorado,” asserts Austin Box, a Southern Ute tribal council member, explaining that the plains tribes associated with eastern Colorado came and went with the buffalo, while the Anasazi were relative late-comers.

The Utes, on the other hand, are now suspected to have been living continuously since the recession of the last ice age in the mountainous areas of the present-day states of Colorado, Utah (whose name comes from the Ute people), and New Mexico, according to Ute Mountain Ute Terry Knight. Archaeologists have recently discovered Ute sites scattered across Colorado that are over 10,000 years old.

The language of the Utes is Shoshonean, a branch or a dialect of the Uto-Aztecan language, further evidence of the tribe’s far-reaching roots in the region.

By the time the first Europeans arrived in Ute territory, the tribe’s social structure had evolved into a loose confederation of seven bands:
1. The Mouache band lived on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, from Denver, south to near Las Vegas, NM. 2. The Capote band inhabited the San Luis Valley in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande and in New Mexico especially around the region where the towns of Chama and Tierra Amarilla are now located. 3. The Weeminuche occupied the valley of the San Juan River and its northern tributaries in Colorado and northwestern New Mexico. 4. The Tabeguache (also called Uncompahgre) lived in the valleys of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers in Colorado. 5. The Grand River Utes (also called Parianuche) lived along that river in Colorado and Utah. 6. The Yamparicas (also called White River) band inhabited the Yampa River Valley and adjacent land. 7. The Uintah Utes inhabited the Uintah Basin, including the Great Salt Lake Basin.

The present day Southern Utes, headquartered in Ignacio, Colo., are made up of the Mouache and Capote bands. The Ute Mountain Utes in Towaoc, Colo., trace their roots to the Weeminuche band. The Northern Utes on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation with headquarters at Fort Duchesne, UT, are comprised of the last four mentioned bands: Tabeguache, Grand, Yampa, and Uintah. (The Southern Utes, A Tribal History, University of Utah Printing Service, copyright 1972.)

GIFTS FROM THE CREATOR… Traditionally, these bands broke up into small family units from early spring to late fall, fanning out over regular circuits of land where they knew they could gather food for the winter. “The mountains were a resource for the people from the creator,” explained Terry Knight. “They gave us food through the animals that lived there.”

The Utes hunted deer, elk, antelope and whatever else they could manage with their handmade tools, and gathered seeds, berries, nuts, roots and fruits. Occasionally they would plant corn, beans and squash in mountain meadows and harvest them in the autumn—“If someone else didn’t get there first!” laughed Chief Ouray’s great-great grandson Roland McCook, a prominent former chairman of the Northern Ute Tribe. There was, however, a general dislike of farming in the Ute culture.

During the winter months, family units of a particular band of Utes would gather close together in sheltered areas for a time of visiting, courtship and festivities. “Winter was a time of learning stories,” CJ Brafford explained. “Springtime brought the Bear Dance, which has always been a time to bring tribes together and see relatives.” Then each family unit would prepare to go its separate way until the next wintertime.

Early records tell of trading between the Utes and neighboring tribes. Utes were known for their high-quality buckskin hides and dried meat, which they would trade with the Navajo for blankets. Pottery, fragile and awkward to carry, was not highly cultivated by the nomadic Utes. They favored tightly woven baskets sealed with pitch and made parfleches—rawhide satchels—in which to store extra food, clothing, and supplies.

In the late 1500s, southern bands of Utes established trade links with the Spaniards in northern New Mexico, and the two groups seem to have generally tolerated each other, even occasionally forming alliances against other native tribes. From the Spaniards, in the late 1500s or early 1600s, the Utes were to obtain their most treasured and revolutionary possession: the horse. They were the first Native Americans to do so. Up until that time, Utes had employed dogs to assist them in their nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle. When they first saw the horses, they considered them to be large magical dogs.

The Utes quickly developed a great passion for their horses, which allowed the wandering bands to become even more nomadic, and to begin hunting buffalo in the parks and plains of Colorado. They abandoned their traditional brush huts called wikkiups, in favor of the portable teepee. Horses could drag the heavy collapsible structures behind them. With their enhanced speed and mobility, the Utes became more warlike and took to occasionally raiding neighboring tribes such as the Pueblo Indians who always had bountiful stockpiles of corn.

With the discovery of gold deep in Ute territory in 1858 came a relentless onslaught of white settlers who believed themselves entitled to everything in their path. The Utes at first were willing to allow the extraction of minerals from their Shining Mountains, as long as the white interlopers did not build permanent settlements. The whites, meanwhile, did not understand why such a small number of people needed such vast swaths of land.

To members of the new culture, the Utes were viewed as a problem to be managed, contained and preferably eliminated. The Ute way was suddenly and brutally transformed from one of innocence to confusion to bitterness and outrage. At a peace conference in Taos in 1854, at which Kit Carson was present, Ute leaders were “gifted” with blanket coats…each leader who received a coat later contracted smallpox. Treaty after treaty banned the Utes from more and more of their traditional homeland. The Brunot Treaty of 1873 removed even the Shining Mountains from Ute domain.

Following an uprising known as the Meeker Massacre in 1879, a small group of Ute leaders including Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta, traveled to Washington D.C. to negotiate their fate. Headlines from the Washington Post described the Utes as “Unwelcome Citizens” and demanded, “The Utes Must Go!” The resulting “Washington Treaty,” signed with an X by Ute leaders Shavano, Alhandra, Veratzitzy, Galota, Jocknick, Wass, Sowawick, and Ignacio (Ouray was the only Indian to sign his own name to the document), further decimated Ute land holdings. (See book review, The Utes Must Go.)

Ouray, whose name was pronounced “Oo-ree” (with a lightly rolled ‘r’) by his own people, was to die later that year, leaving behind a controversial legacy. The fact was, the white people didn’t keep their treaties, and Ouray was the favorite scapegoat among some of his people. At one point his brother-in-law even attempted to assassinate him.

Contemporary Ute leaders like Terry Knight view Ouray with equanimity. “Ouray said, ‘There are as many white men as grains of sand and the best way to deal with them is to learn how to work with them, live with them. Otherwise we will be exterminated.’ That’s what he said,” explained Knight.

“…Growing up in Taos, [Ouray] had seen the Mexicans getting along with the Utes,” said Roland McCook. “He tried to become an example of assimilation…. However, near the end of his life, after seeing treaty after treaty fall through, he became bitterly disillusioned and reverted entirely to native ways.”

“Ouray was a man of great wisdom and foresight, caught in a time of conflict,” CJ Brafford summarized. “His strength was in keeping the peace. Without his intervention, there would have been many more outbreaks. The Utes could have ended up in Oklahoma—they were slated to go there.”

In the years that followed, federal “allotment acts” gave specific acreages of land to individual tribal members on the Southern Ute and Northern Ute reservations, which the Utes were supposed to learn how to farm in an effort toward assimilation. The rest of the reservation land was declared surplus and opened up to non-Indian homesteaders, leading to the “checkerboard” reservations found there today—a blend of Ute and non-Ute land within reservation boundaries. (“Checkerboard” reservations are common with other tribal lands as well.) The Ute Mountain Ute tribe alone, under the leadership of Chief Ignacio, resisted allotment and has retained full tribal authority over its entire reservation.

In the early days of reservation life, Ute numbers were decimated by hardship, disease, malnutrition, and, one imagines, heartbreak. Forbidden to venture beyond reservation boundaries to hunt and gather, and not inclined toward cultivating land that was not suitable for cultivation in the first place, the Utes became utterly dependent on annuities of food and money promised to them in treaties. All too frequently these annuities did not materialize, leaving the people ever more starving and destitute. “The agents could manipulate their wards to suit their own purposes,” Roland McCook explained. Meanwhile, Ute children were made to go away to boarding schools in a deliberate attempt to erase their heritage.

“It was the sad side of things,” CJ Brafford said. “During the era of reservation life, the Utes lost their old ways of roaming freely. But, they survived. Many tribes at that time had already vanished….”

And they continue to survive today. Both on their reservations, and as “city Indians,” today’s Utes fancy-dance between their traditional culture and the non-Indian world around them, proud of where they come from and who they are.

Photo credit

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has featured all of the articles in this section on their web site under Culture & History – Ute History Articles.