Not all the Utes were forced out of Colorado in the 19th century.
Visitors to the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum in Ignacio, Colorado, feel welcome in the central gathering place, fittingly named the Welcome Gallery. Designed as a giant wickiup with a huge fireplace, the space is crowned by a glorious Circle of Life window, symbolizing the central theme of Ute culture, and the floor is inset in stone with the four compass points. The Southern Ute Indian Reservation [www.southern-ute.nsn.us], with tribal headquarters also in Ignacio, covers 1,000-plus square miles in three counties—La Plata, Archuleta and Montezuma.
The Ute Indians are considered the oldest continuous residents of Colorado. Archaeologists have found fire pits, stone tools, petroglyphs and stone foundations for fortifications dating as far back as 6000 BC, from the Pikes Peak area south to the present-day border with New Mexico. Their arrival may have forced out the Anasazis (or Ancestral Puebloans), who inhabited the signature sandstone cliff dwellings that lay scattered throughout the present-day reservation.
When the Spanish arrived, the Utes occupied most of what would become Colorado and eastern Utah and were loosely concentrated in about seven bands. The Uintahs inhabited the Uintah Basin, which included the Great Salt Lake Basin in present-day Utah. The Parianuches, or Grand River Utes, dwelled along the banks of what is now known as the Colorado River. The Yamparikas, or White River band, lived in the Yampa River Valley in present-day northern Colorado. The Tabeguaches (“People of the Sun Mountain”) lived in the mountains and valleys shadowed by Pikes Peak until their 1868 removal to a reservation on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, where they became known as the Uncompahgres. The Moaches and Capotes inhabited the San Luis Valley near the headwaters of the Rio Grande south to present-day New Mexico, while the Weeminuches occupied the valley of the San Juan River and its northern tributaries in Colorado and northwestern New Mexico. Southern Ute bands traded with the Spanish and the Navajos, when they weren’t fighting each other as well as the Comanches. The U.S. government had little luck turning Utes into farmers.
Settlers ultimately forced most of the Utes out of Colorado, but the Weeminuches, under Chief Ignacio, and the Capote and Moache bands, under Buckskin Charlie, along with Uncompahgre Chief Ouray and Capote Chief Severo, fought to retain their land and their way of life. In 1877 the government established the Southern Ute Indian Reservation on the Colorado–New Mexico border. The Capote and Moache bands merged to become the Southern Ute tribe, while the Weeminuches became the Ute Mountain tribe. Chief Ignacio opposed the federal policy of land allotment and in 1895 moved most of his people to the western part of the reservation in protest. He continued to fight for collective ownership of the land and the dignity of the Utes until his death in 1913. The town of Ignacio is named in his honor.
At the heart of this sacred land, the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum honors Ute history and tradition. The groundbreaking was held August 22, 2008, and the grand opening followed in May 2011. The Temporary Gallery has since showcased Indian motorcycles and Ute-influenced baskets, while the Permanent Gallery offers a fabulous interactive exhibit space. Displays from the earliest times to present day tell the full Southern Ute story, and visitors can follow that story with a self-guided tour beginning at the Circle of Life Theater. It was at times a sad story, of course, such as when the government withheld rations to force Utes to send their children to boarding schools. The last traditional Weeminuche chief, Jack House, served from 1936 until his death in 1971.
Tribal members have loaned many of the pieces on display. Among the array of priceless artifacts are stone tools, blankets, beads, ceremonial dress and other clothing. Exhibits sprawl outside the museum walls. The curious can explore early rock art left behind by the first Utes and also stroll through a Ute camp, centered on a full-size tepee, for a sense of the days when Utes roamed free in the area. The archives and extensive library hold a trove of information and documents for researchers. For more info call 970- 563-9583 or visit www.succm.org.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.