Thursday, November 7, 2013

Native American Cultures: The Ute

View from our home of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
My wife and I live in the beautiful Wet Mountain Valley of southern Colorado.  This valley was originally the home of the Ute Indians.  Before the Spanish came, the Ute were divided into seven bands.  Our little valley was in between the territories of the Mouache and Capote bands, but was probably occupied by the Mouache who ranged along the eastern slopes of the Rockies, from Denver south to near Las Vegas New Mexico.  The Capote band inhabited the San Luis Valley, which is on the other side of the Sangre de Cristo’s from us, near the headwaters of the Rio Grande south to New Mexico around the current towns of Chama and Tierra Amarilla.
Ute Tipi

It would be easy to imagine a small circle of Tipi’s sitting on the rounded hill where our house sits today.  It would have been a great spot to camp.  From here, you can see for miles across the valley and watch for game.  Buffalo would probably have come up the valley from the prairie down by Walsenburg in the summer and grazed the fertile valley between the Wet Mountains, to the east, and the Sangre de Christo Mountains to the west.  Yesterday, my wife spotted a large herd of buffalo to the south from out her studio window.  Thousands of buffalo pasture on the huge Wolf Springs Buffalo Ranch three miles south of us.

In the spring and summer, the Ute would break up into small family units and hunt for deer, elk, antelope and other animals.   At that time, they had no horses—horses were brought to America from Europe—so it was easier to provide for small groups.  These same animals roam the valley today.  We often have antelope coming across our property and have seen the elk migrating through the valley in spring and fall.  Aside from the few houses that occasionally dot the landscape, the valley is probably much the same as it was back then.

In late fall, the bands would regroup in sheltered areas for the winter.  The Mouache, Capote, and Weeminuche bands would migrate south and live through the winter in northwestern New Mexico or northeastern Arizona.  Winter provided a great opportunity for social interaction and festivities which were eventually ended by the Great Bear Dances in early spring.

The Ute probably migrated into Colorado, Utah (named after the Ute) and New Mexico over 2,000 years ago.  The Anisazi (or Ancestral Puebloan people) were living in the area at the time.  The influx of the Ute may have driven them into the sandstone caves in the cliffs that is now known as Mesa Verde.  The ruins of the Ancestral Puebloan people are found throughout the current Ute reservation.

Wet Mountain Valley is no longer a part of the Ute territories.  The lives of the Ute in this valley began to change dramatically with the settlement of the Spanish in New Mexico.  The Spanish brought horses and domestic animals.  Horses greatly enhanced the Ute’s ability to hunt game.  The Ute began to make trips to Taos and Pecos to trade.  At first, relations were peaceful and beneficial to all.  But over time, the Ute began to realize that with the horse, it was easier to raid other tribes or villages than to hunt for food.

The Ute became master horsemen and fierce warriors.  At first, the enemies of the Ute were the Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshone, Blackfoot and Arapaho to the north;  the Sioux, Osage, Pawnee, Kiowa, Comanche, and Plains Apache to the east and southeast; and west and south they battled the Navajo, Paiute, and Western Shoshone;  in other words, their neighbors.

Over the years, when white settlers and gold seekers began to move into Utah and Colorado, there were several skirmishes with the Ute.  But, during the same time-frame, the Ute often allied with the United States in wars with the Navajo and Apache.  A series of treaties established a small reservation in northeast Utah and in 1868 extended to include the western third of modern Colorado.  But, the large area included land claimed by other tribes and was whittled away over time by encroaching white settlers and mining interests.

In the 20th century, several U.S. federal court decisions restored portions of the original reservation land and awarded monetary compensation for the losses.
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