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Ute Indians of Colorado

The Utes are the only Native Americans indigenous to what is now the State of Colorado. They are believed to be one of the first aboriginal groups in North America to use horses in great numbers, and they were the last tribe in the West to be confined to reservations. The acquisition of horses from the Spanish in the early 1600s dramatically changed the Ute lifestyle from a small family hunting-and-gathering economy, often on the edge of starvation, to an organized tribal society blessed with abundance.

Among the Ute people, the horse became a man’s most important possession, not only for hunting and raiding, but as a symbol of wealth and success. They became skilled horsemen, developing their raiding and fighting abilities as the Comanche, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes began migrating into Ute country in the 1700s. Although war honors were not part of their culture, the Utes fiercely defended their homelands from trespassers.

Mounted hunting parties were able to travel long distances seeking buffalo, elk, deer, antelope, and mountain sheep. These animals served as sources of food, clothing, teepee (or tipi) hides, and bone implements. Further contact with Euro-Americans enabled the Utes to trade their finely-tanned hides for guns, knives, axes, iron kettles, wool cloth, and beads. The Ute tribes followed a distinct seasonal pattern of hunting and gathering, interspersed with ceremonies designed to insure success in these activities as well as to maintain harmony with the natural world. Spring would find groups coming together to participate in the oldest of all their celebrations, the bear dance. Summers were spent in the mountains gathering fruits and grain. In autumn several bands would join together to wind their way down the Ute Pass Trail to Manitou, where they made offerings to the spirits of the springs for good health and good hunting before continuing east in search of buffalo.

Grinding stones found at the Garden of the Gods and other sheltered areas along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains suggest the groups would gather together after their hunt to complete the tanning of hides and processing of meat. Winters in protected mountain valleys were spent in warm teepees sewing, crafting tools, playing games, and telling stories.

El Paso (Spanish for “the pass”) County was named for the Ute Pass Trail, worn into a wide road by countless generations of migrating Indians traveling with horses and dragging their teepee poles. This same wilderness road was followed by mountain men, explorers, prospectors, freight wagons, and the Colorado Midland Railroad, and is now the route of a modern highway (U.S. 24). Under the strong leadership of Chief Ouray, the Utes remained friendly to the newcomers as the government negotiated treaties to share Ute land. Gradually the Native people were confined to smaller and smaller areas. Often they were reduced to starvation because of the loss of hunting and gathering grounds and the lack of food and other provisions promised by the treaties.

In 1879 a small group of Utes finally retaliated against their treatment in what became known as the “Meeker Massacre” in northwestern Colorado. As a result of this incident, all Utes were confined on reservations by 1882. They would not be allowed to return to the Pikes Peak area until 1911, when a group of Southern Utes were escorted to Colorado Springs to participate in a carnival. Once again the proud mountain people rode down Ute Pass to dance and camp in the Garden of the Gods, where their leader, Chief Buckskin Charlie, had been born more than half a century before. In 1912 the Ute Pass Trail was formally dedicated in a colorful ceremony wherein several notable Utes rode down the Trail for the last time.

Presently the majority of Ute people still reside on reservations in southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah. Their largest reservation is in Utah, the state named for them. The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum has a fine collection of Ute items, including clothing, cradleboards, and baskets. The Museum also has an outstanding collection of regional historical photographs, including images of Chief Ouray, Pe’ah or Blacktail Deer, Ignacio, and Buckskin Charlie. The story of the Utes and other Native Americans who visited the Pikes Peak Region is told in the Native American exhibit on the Museum’s third floor.

By Jan Pettit