Monday, May 6, 2019

History and Culture of the Ute Indians

Sarah and I are spending a few months in Durango, Colorado, just outside the Ute Indian reservation and it reminds me that I have an undergraduate degree in Anthropology. Also, it reminded me that I once wrote this paper and that in 1994 I thought I was going to spend my summer working in Utah. 

I never did make it to the region until Sarah and I got here last month, but I did get a good grade on this paper, so if you are an anthropology student in a pinch, feel free to use this. I'm sure your professors don't have access to the internet, I know mine didn't back in 1994. 


Indians of the American Southwest, 1994

In the summer of 1995, I will be living in the state of Utah and working primarily in the northern half of the Four Corners area of the United States. While having studied the native American peoples of the southern half, (i.e. Navajos, Pueblos, and Apaches) because of my work this summer, I have a practical need to study those cultures of the northern half The Four Corners area of the United States is the point where the present day states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet. This area is at the northern edge of the greater southwest region and the cultures there have characteristics of the southwest cultures and the plains cultures. The area that I am concerned with is southeast Utah and southwest Colorado, home of the Ute Indian tribes. The Utes were an isolated, peaceful tribe of Indians as far as the white settlers were concerned. Historians have typically neglected the Utes, and know little more about them then the several treaties that they made with the U.S. government.

The Utes once occupied the majority of the country in what is now the states of Utah and Colorado. However, their hunting grounds spread much further than that. To the west, they hunted as far as the present day border of Nevada. The southern edge of their hunting grounds went midway into the state of New Mexico. On the east, they hunted in the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma, and Kansas. In the north, they hunted through most of southern Wyoming. This territory, along with the expansive hunting grounds, made for a very large domain for the Utes. The Ute reservation land today is a minute traction of this former territory.

The Utes were not the first people to settle in this area. This country was originally inhabited by the Anasazi. From the beginning of the Christian era, they had a culture that developed from a primitive basket maker culture through the Pueblo stage. At around 1200 AD, the Anasazi moved from the mesa tops to caves for defense. They built houses there that were similar to what they were accustomed to, but were smaller and more compact due to the lack of space. These houses are known as cliff dwellings and many remains of these are found in the four corners area, such as the ones at Mesa Verde.

The method of arrival of the Utes to the area is generally not agreed upon by anthropologists, as there is evidence to support several theories. The Utes were probably part of a great migration of Indian peoples from west Canada and Alaska in the 13th century. They could have arrived in the area by migrating down the east slope of the Rocky Mountains, to the Great Plains. Another theory states the possibility that they entered through the valleys of the west Rockies and filtered into Colorado from the great basin of Utah and Nevada. Apparently they found that area already occupied and moved into the foothills and narrow mountain valleys, where it was much more difficult to hunt and gather food.

After the Utes settled in the Rockies, they found that they were surrounded by more established tribes of Indians. To the east and northeast, they were bordered by the Arapahos, Commences, Sioux, and the Pawnees. To the south they were bordered by the Athapaskan Navajos and Apache groups. The land to the west and northwest was occupied by the Shoshunes, Snakes, Bannocks, Paiutes, and Goshutes.

The Ute tribe was divided into seven different bands. Their names and the areas that they inhabited are deduced from the historic period data. There was the Mouache, who lived in the southeast corner of Colorado and the northeast corner of New Mexico. Their territory typically fluctuated and occasionally reached all the way north to present day Denver and south to present day Santa Fe. The Capote Utes in Colorado lived primarily in the San Luis valley, and in the land near the headwaters of the Rio Grande river. In New Mexico, they inhabited the land by Chama and Tierra Amarilla. The Weeminuche, sometimes refereed to as the Ute Mountain Utes, lived along the San Juan river in northwestern New Mexico and in southeastern Utah. The Tabeguache Utes or Uncompahgre Utes lived in Colorado along the Gunnison and Uncompahgre rivers. The Parianuc Utes lived along the Colorado river in present day Colorado and Utah. The river was then known as the grand river and the Parianuc Utes were sometimes referred to as the Grand River Utes. The Yampa Utes, also named for a river, lived along the Yampa river. Together with the Tabeguache and the Parianuc Utes, the Yampa were referred to by whites as the White River Utes. Finally, the seventh band of Utes, the Uintah, lived in the Utah Basin and in the mountains of east Utah. In the southwestern Colorado region, the three southern Ute bands, the Weeminuches, Mouaches, and Capotes, had a combined population of approximately one thousand. The west central Colorado Tabeguache numbered around three thousand. The remaining bands of the north had a combined population slightly higher than that of the Tabeguache.

In their native language, the Utes referred to themselves as nuche, or nooche meaning "the people". Their language is a dialect of the Uto-Aztecan, Shoshonean branch of languages spoken by many Indian groups in the southwest. They are linguistically related to the paiutes, goshutes, chemehuevis, and the bannocks. In addition to sharing a similar language, they have similar religions, customs, and myths as well. Physically, they were short and muscular and had dark skin. For this reason, they were commonly referred to by whites as being "Black Indians".

Before the Utes had acquired horses from the Spanish, organization of the bands was broken into small family units. This was because of the large area of mountains that the occupied. With such a small amount of people (their numbers never went over 10,000), food was difficult to gather in large groups, therefore it was beneficial to live in small units. From early spring to late autumn the males of the family unit would be responsible for hunting the available game. They hunted deer, elk, antelope, and other small animals.

During this period the families also gathered seeds of grasses, wild berries, and fruits. They occasionally planted crops in the mountain meadows during the spring and harvested them in the autumn. Typical crops were corn, beans and squash. They did not have any sophisticated tools for this except some stone and animal products, and without horses their hunting and gathering was restricted to a small area. Therefore, the family unit moved with the seasons on a regular circuit. They would gather products in a semiarid area in the spring and harvest in the high mountains in the summer.

Although they lived in family units, the husband and wife pair was the basic unit of society. However, it was easy to change partners where desired because marriage rituals were simple. A man was thought to be ready to marry when he could demonstrate that he could hunt well enough to provide meat for his family. Because of this, those men who were poor hunters often found it difficult to obtain a wife. Marriage was simple, in order to marry, a man simply moved in with the women's family and slept with her. After sleeping with the woman, they were married. The couple was then expected to remain living with the wives family until their first child was born. Children belonged to the mother's family unit and returned to them with her in the event of a divorce.

Polygamy was not uncommon to the Utes. Aggressive males would sometimes have more than one wife. These other wives were usually sisters or close friends of the first wife, in order to keep harmony within the household. Some women also had multiple husbands but this was more infrequent. Although the Utes accepted polygamy, adultery was not condoned. Often as the case would be, the other woman was punished by the husband's wife (or wives). If completely outraged, the wife would even rid herself of the husband. This was accomplished by injuring his most prized possession, such as a horse, thereby rejecting him.

Ute religion was almost as flexible as their marriage practices. They had no strict religious dogma or unalterable systematic rituals. Religion was thought to be a part of every day life, allowing great flexibility. Like many other native American tribes, the Utes emphasized a need for harmony with nature. Those who became ill were seen as being out of harmony. They also believe that one could receive power from the forces of nature, and that this power should not be abused. Injury would come to those who abused this power.

The education of the young was the responsibility of all the adult kinsmen. Learning was informal and was primarily done through observation. The Utes rarely punished their children, instead they were told tales of the horrible things that would happen to them if they were disobedient. Toys were usually educational and often resembled small versions of tools or weapons. Boys were taught how to hunt, use weapons, and learned the habits of animals. Girls were taught to perform domestic chores such as cooking, sewing, and tanning hides. All children were taught how to gather, harvest, and prepare food.

Every summer each family unit returned to the same places. Grandparents and elders watched over the small children, leaving the parents and older children free to hunt, pick berries, and gather food. The Utes lived a hard life but it was not complicated. The Weeminuche probably had a more comfortable migratory existence, than the other bands because they lived in a scenic region with abundant game.

The Utes are the oldest residents of Colorado and all the other tribes that hunted in Colorado were deadly enemies of the Utes. When the first pioneers entered the area, they found the Utes living west of the continental divide. These pioneers had little influence on the Utes until the Spanish colonized New Mexico. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the Ute lifestyle went through major changes. This was due to the introduction of Spanish livestock to the area, especially horses.

Horses allowed the Utes greater mobility and a larger range for hunting and gathering. The eastern bands, (the Mouaches, Capotes, and Tabeguaches) began to hunt buffalo as a principle resource. Buffalo were used for meat as well as tipi covers, clothing, bedding, stronger moccasins, stronger bags, rawhide ropes, bladder water bags, sinew thread for sewing and bow strings, horns, and horn and poof glue. Horses changed the social and political structure of the Utes. Enemies could be evaded easier. Goods could be transported to a central camp location where women and children could be better protected. Hunters could range further. Battles against other groups without horses were easily won. Trade with neighboring tribes was easier and this increased contact brought about the Ute adoption of many traits of the Plains Indians.

Trade helped establish friendly relations with neighboring tribes. The Utes had good relations with their west and northwest neighbors. The Navajos and Apaches to the south remained unfriendly except for the Jicarilla Apaches with which Utes occasionally intermarried, The Utes traded dried meat and tan hides with other tribes. They became known for their well tanned hides, and traded with the Pueblos for agricultural goods, cotton, blankets, pottery, salt, and turquoise. They traded with the Plains Indians for buffalo products, and with the Hopi for red ocher paint. The Utes raided and hunted with the Jicarilla Apaches in the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma.

With the horse and the added mobility that came with it, there was no longer a strong need for the family units. The Utes organized in larger groups with more powerful leaders. However, the family unit continued to be the basic unit of society. Hunting buffalo brought the eastern Utes into contact with the Arapahos, Kiowas, Cheyennes, Sioux, and Comanches who possessed more horses than the Utes. They became aggressive and warlike and considered it easier to raid the livestock of others than to hunt. They began raiding other Indian tribes and also the Spanish towns in the south. The new leaders directed camp movements, organized hunts and raids, and called war parties. This warfare helped to support the whole tribe as the loot gained from raids was distributed evenly among the individuals. On the afternoon following a raid, a scalp dance ritual was performed by the men.

The role of women in raiding was to keep the camp ready to move in case the raid was a failure. They performed the lame dance, and still perform it today. This dance, involving a limping step, symbolized the difficulties in carrying a heavy load. This warfare was defense war. The Utes engaged in war for loot, not for glory or manhood like some other tribes.

Of the Ute bands, the Weeminuche were much less effected by the Spanish colonization of New Mexico. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Weeminuche Ute's territory was just outside of the fringe of Spanish occupation. They lived west of the other Ute bands and were unable to hunt the buffalo when they acquired horses. They were more isolated than the other bands and encountered Europeans much later with less frequency. Although they were the last Utes to acquire horses, they too organized into larger groups with more powerful leaders.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Navajo shepherding had grown due to population increases and raiding sheep from the nearby Pueblos. The Navajos spread to the north where they came in contact with the Weeminuche. The two tribes developed a friendly relationship and even lived together in the Carrizo Mountains of northeast Arizona. The Weeminuche joined the Navajos in raiding and traded with them. In Navajo legend, the Utes were said to produce "good weapons of all kinds". Throughout the Spanish and Mexican periods of occupation, the Utes continued in their new way of life. The Weeminuche eventually came to dwell in the four corners area with the closest Spanish outpost being Abiquiu, New Mexico. Then, in the Mexican war with the United States, U. S. troops occupied the land northwest of Abiquiu. The U. S. feared the Utes because the Mouache Utes and their allies, the Jicarilla Apaches, were hostile to Anglo traders.

On 12/30/1849 the first treaty was signed between the U. S. and the Utes. Signed at Abiquiu, the treaty was organized by the U. S. Indian agent John Calhoun. However, U. S occupation did not stop the raiding practices of the tribes. The Weeminuche and their allies, the Navajo, continued to do so, as well as other Ute bands. The treaty had not defined boundaries for the Ute territory and because they had acquired many horses, they traded all over the territory. This upset the Anglo traders who pressured the government to move the Utes. On March 2, 1868, a new treaty was signed providing two reservations for the Utes, this time with distinct borders. They were the Uintah reservation in northern Utah and a consolidated Ute reservation comprised the western third of Colorado.

'The Colorado reservation's 16 million acres was more land per capita than given in any (Other U. S. treaty. The U. S. provided some education, clothing, and rations for the Utes in compensation for land losses. The Utes soon became self supporting once again. However, shortly after the treaty went into effect, it was discovered that the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado contained gold. Many Anglo miners illegally trespassed onto reservation land in search of the precious metal. This was in violation of the treaty, but pressure from the miners forced the three southern bands of Utes to occupy smaller territories. Finally, the Brunot agreement of 1873 ceded a 60 mile by 90 mile rectangle of land from the Utes. This land contained part of the San Juan Mountains and its cession split the reservation into two parts connected by a strip of land that was only 20 miles wide.

The southern Utes gave up 3.5 million acres of land and were left with a reservation that was 15 miles wide and 110 miles long. The citizens of Colorado still wanted to further move the Utes. The gold discovered in the San Juan Mountains brought more people to the territory and they felt that the presence of Indians would discourage settlers. Also, Colorado was going to become a state in 1876 and wanted the Indians out. A commission negotiated their removal and asked the southern Utes to move north. They refused.

Tension between the Anglos and the Utes grew during the next few years and reached its peak with the "Meeker Massacre" of September 1879. Indian agent Nathan Meeker, of the north agency serving the White river Utes, wanted to have the grazing land near the agency plowed for raising grain. The Utes protested and a group of 25 White River Utes attacked and killed Meeker and his eight man staff The Utes also took captive three women and two children and held them for 23 days. The citizens of Colorado then pressured the government for the removal of the Utes. This pressure resulted in the agreement of June 15, 1880.

Under this new agreement, the White River Utes were moved to the Uintah reservation in Utah. The Tabeguache Utes were given the "agricultural lands on the grand (Colorado) river near the mouth of the Gunnison or on any other unoccupied lands in that vicinity or in the territory of Utah. The southern Ute bands, including the Weeminuche, were given the unoccupied lands of the La Plata River in Colorado. This agreement included continued support from the government, including annuity goods and rations consisting of flour, beef, sugar, coffee, hats, combs, etc... No furniture was included.

The north bands were quickly moved to the Uintah reservation in Utah, as they were the ones responsible for the "Meeker Massacre". However, the disposition of the southern Utes did not proceed as planned. The land along the La Plata River was discovered to be poor for agriculture and was judged as incapable to support the Utes. On February 20, 1895, after several years of controversy and negotiations, congress created reservations for the southern Utes in Colorado and the Weeminuche in Colorado and new Mexico. The land given to the tribes was the same territory that they had occupied prior to the 1880 agreement.

The act of 1895 required the Secretary of the Interior to make allotments of farm land available to the southern Utes. Those Indians who did not accept the allotments were to be placed on certain lands in the western portion of the reservation. These lands were to be owned in common among the tribes. The Capote and Mouache bands accepted the allotments which were made in the fertile eastern part of the reservation. The Weeminuche band refused their allotments and withdrew to the semi-arid western part of the reservation. Due to the lack of a good water source, a sub-agency for the Weeminuche was moved four miles north to its present location at Towaoc, Colorado. The act of 1895 also added six townships in New Mexico to the Weeminuche reservation.

With the increased contact of Anglo society during the negotiations between 1880 and 1895, the Utes had assimilated a little of the white man's culture. The Indians began drinking alcohol and gambling whenever they could. They also began spending large amounts of time just lounging around the reservation. Buckskin, basketry, and breadwork became major crafts of the Utes, although they did stick to the past traditions of their forefathers in more important respects.

In May of 1899, the allotments around Ignacio, the southern Ute reservation headquarters, that were refused by members of the Weeminuche were returned to the public domain. These lands were now open for filing to white homesteaders. This continued contact with whites forced the Utes to make further adjustments to Anglo norms of conduct. Farming became a more widespread occupation as only a few Utes were farmers before the turn of the century. The government had supplied them with farming implements, wagons, harnesses, and seeds, but had not supplied them with horses. The new farmers lived in simple frame houses with shingled roofs and plank floors that were built by the government. The average southern Ute family farm at Ignacio was 40 acres. The chief crops raised were alfalfa, wheat, and oats. Much of the grain that was raised was fed to livestock rather than sold. Although, there were no large Indian owned stock ranches at Ignacio. Hay and grain, which the southern Utes do not feed to their livestock, were sold in the same markets as the products of their white neighbors. Working on farms left the Utes little time to observe old customs and also caused them to rely on an individualistic economy. This effectively destroyed their large group solidarity.

A long period of land sales to white settlers followed the granting of allotments at Ignacio. The southern Utes were encouraged to part with much of their land in exchange for cash or for inferior horses and trade goods. As a result of land manipulations, two bands of southern Utes have since the turn of the century, owned individual farms that were scattered among white holdings around the consolidated Ute agency at Ignacio. Only through the inheritance of the remaining lands which they held onto, have mature Utes at Ignacio come into possession of farms and homes. The southern Ute reservation around Ignacio consisted of5,291 acres of allotted land and 298,277 acres of tribal land. This tribal land was held in common by the members of the tribe. At the same time, the Weeminuche have lived for years in a nomadic, solitary life on the Ute Mountain reservation around the sub-agency at Towaoc, where the land was also held in common.

Each reservation was served by a new U. S. agency. The agency buildings were made of logs and lumber in contrast to the tipis of the Indians. There were large issue houses where government rations were distributed from, warehouses, implement houses, stables, hay lofts, council buildings, and homes for the agent and his eight employees at each agency. Indian police forces assisted the agents in maintaining discipline over the tribes. There was a community meeting house at each agency, where the agents met with the Indians to discuss matters of interest. The agent brought an interpreter and a secretary to the meetings. No Indians, not even those in positions of authority, were allowed to speak more than once at the meetings.

On May 10, 1911, the Weeminuche ceded part of their land to be included in the newly established Mesa Verde National Park. They were compensated by being given other lands adjacent to the reservation. This gave the Ute Mountain portion of the reservation its current irregular shape and was the last time its borders would be officially changed. During the 1920s, a number of the Weeminuche Utes began filling the public domain land in the Allen Canyon area near Blanding and Monticello, Utah. Most of the southern Utes lived in tipis and continued to live that way in the manner of their forefathers. They disliked work of all kinds except for hunting, and there was not much game on the reservation. They did most of their hunting on land outside of the reservation's territory. In 1926, the southern Ute tribes adopted a constitution and bylaws. The constitution provided for a six member council and defined jurisdiction, membership, and powers of the council. It also had further provisions for conducting all other business concerning the tribe. One full time police officer and a tribal judge were elected to maintain law and order. The tribal judge was given the power to perform new marriage rituals, while the tribal chief position had become merely an honorary office.

Throughout the years, the Utes have retained some of their aboriginal practices which were distinct to them. They still performed dance rituals, such as the bear dance, the sun dance, and the women's lame dance. The difference in practice was that they no longer danced for the entire night. There were also no longer any medicine men among the southern Utes. After the older medicine men had passed away, there were no young Utes who desired to take their place. This was probably because of the advanced medical care available from modern hospitals and because the new generation of Utes did not want to live a life of abstinence, which was necessary for becoming a medicine man. Traditional customs in clothing still persisted. Men continued to wear their hair in long braids and women wore traditional velvet dresses. However, the fashions of the younger generations began to resemble more and more of the white man's styles. Also southern Utes began to build more permanent structures for their homes. Rather than living in traditional tipis, many Utes began living in frame or Adobe houses during most of the year. These houses were equipped with floors, doors, windows, and heating arrangements.

In modern times, the Utes and their reservations have gone through great changes in order to keep up with the rest of the country. Currently, there are more non-Indian people living within the boundaries of the reservations than Utes themselves. The Utes have developed many industries including agriculture, mining, water and gas leases, tourism and others. These provide tribal incomes as well as individual incomes. The offices of the tribal headquarters are modern, efficient, and well managed. Formal education, which was once considered unimportant by Utes is now considered very important. In the words of one tribesman "College for former generations was almost an impossibility. . . today not only is it possible, but probable."

The southern Utes opened the Pino Nuche tourist center in 1972. It is a complex consisting of a modern motel with meeting and banquet rooms, a restaurant, and a museum (which I will visit over the summer). The tribe offers guide services to tourists during hunting season, as well as fishing and camping on the reservation. The Weeminuche tribe now operates a modern pottery shop and showroom (which I will also visit). Hand crafted goods are produced and sold nationwide. The Ute Mountain Tribal Park is also available as a year round park. There, visitors can hike to the cliff dwellings of the ancient Anasazi, or take Indian guided tours into the back country. Despite these apparent cultural changes, the Utes have never given up their resistance to the lifestyle forced upon them and the loss of their land.


1) "The Ute Mountain Utes” Robert Delaney University of New Mexico press, Albuquerque 1989.

2) "Utes the Mountain People", Jan Pettit Johnson Publishing Company, Boulder 1990.

3) "The Utes A Forgotten People", Wilson Rockwell Sage Books, Denver 1956.

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