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Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico

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Using government documents, archives, and local histories, Simmons has painstakingly separated the often repeated and often incorrect hearsay from more accurate accounts of the Ute Indians.

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1 Mother Earth, Father Sky

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Mother Earth, Father Sky

In the Ute Indians’ traditional view of the natural world, Father Sky created the sun, moon, stars, and Earth. Mother Earth provides what is needed by those who show reverence and respect. For Utes, there was a vast and varied land—sometimes gentle and sometimes severe—where they survived by living respectfully in harmony with their environment, whatever it might be.

Before there were people, Senawahv, the Creator, made buffalo and deer, berries and piñon nut trees, and everything the people would need to live. Then he cut up sticks and put them in a bag. He meant for the sticks to be different peoples to whom he would give equal portions of the land and its good things, but Coyote, the curious trickster, opened the bag to see what was inside, and people scrambled forth in disorder, speaking many tongues. Senawahv looked inside and saw the remaining people, the Utes, and he declared that they would be so brave and strong that they would be able to defeat all others.1

 

2 The Núu-ci

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The Núu-ci

“We were always here,” say the Utes, reluctant to discuss their history, even their myths. Equally obscure is the archaeological story that might reveal when and how this tribe came to occupy its present territory.

About eight millennia before Ute Indians appeared in North America, hunters and gatherers of the Archaic Stage, which lasted until about A.D. 500, appeared in North America. Ute people, who also were hunters and gatherers with a similar lifestyle, are believed to have come from Mexico into what is now the southwestern part of the United States in about A.D. 1000. Whether Ute sites are in the Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau, or the Central and Southern Rockies, archaeologists have had difficulty distinguishing between Late Archaic and Early Ute occupation. Even on Colorado’s Uncompahgre Plateau, where it was once thought a continuum between the two cultures might be proved, archaeologists have been unable to provide convincing material evidence of such a link.1

Additional confusion arises in connection with Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, and Fremont People, who were called Mo-cutz (Moquis), meaning “the dead ones,” by the Utes. Belonging to the Formative Stage, these two cultures existed in the Great Basin and on the Colorado Plateau prior to the arrival of the Utes. The agricultural way of life of the Anasazi, who occupied the Four Corners region, differed markedly from that of the Utes.

 

3 The Coming of the White Man (1598–1821)

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The Coming of the White Man (1598–1821)

Led by Governor and Captain General Juan de Oñate, in 1598 the Spanish invaders were an astonishing spectacle with their horses, riders in metal and leather armor, firearms and long swords, friars in long robes, and Mexican Indian servants herding thousands of head of sheep, goats, and cattle. These first European colonists arrived at the southern edge of Ute territory and advanced as far north as San Juan Pueblo, near the confluence of New Mexico’s Chama River with the Rio Grande. Utes soon learned about the unusual newcomers from the Pueblo people, who traded with Utes at San Juan, Taos, and Picuris1 and learned that the Spaniards were requisitioning food and blankets from Pueblos, forcing them into slave labor, baptizing them into a new religion, and taking many to Mexico as slaves.

Before long, foreigners rode north into La Tierra de los Yutas, too, to hunt bison in the San Luis Valley and to seek silver and gold. In 1637 the first recorded battle took place there between Utes and Spaniards, and eighty Ute prisoners were taken south to Santa Fe where they, along with Jicarilla Apache captives, were forced into labor in Governor Luis de Rosas’s textile workshop.2 In 1640 some Utes escaped from Santa Fe and took their first horses, the beginning of a new era for the nomads.

 

4 Trappers, Traders, and Transition (1810–1846)

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Trappers, Traders, and Transition (1810–1846)

Drastic change did not reach all Ute Indians simultaneously, although none escaped it eventually. By the early nineteenth century, change was reaching Western Utes, who were beginning to learn lessons through their contact with New Mexican colonists—lessons Eastern Utes had known for about two centuries. Primarily, Utes of Utah still relied on bands in west–central Colorado to act as middlemen for their occasional exchange of captive Shoshones, Gosiutes, and Paiutes for horses and goods, but the horses acquired were often eaten, as the arid climate and vegetation of the Great Basin could not support sizable herds of livestock, and food remained scarce.

Nevertheless, traders from New Mexico were making inroads, usually illegal ones. Residents around Abiquiú and Taos knew the Indian trails used by Rivera and the Domínguez-Escalante expedition, spoke Indian languages, and could move back and forth without close government surveillance, although a few enterprising men were arrested and brought before the alcalde, the administrative justice, in Santa Cruz in the 1780s and 1790s. An unlicensed pack train destined for Ute country in 1783, for instance, had taken corn, flour, tobacco, biscuits, and knives along with horses and mules, it was learned.1 In 1805, after a seventy-year-old Ute genízaro, Manuel Mestas, had traveled to Utah Lake from Abiquiú to recover stolen horses and mules, he reported to the governor that Indians in Utah had been in contact with New Mexicans for years. Meanwhile, Sabuagana and Capote Utes regularly came to Abiquiú and the northern pueblos to trade.

 

5 On a Collision Course (1846–1858)

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On a Collision Course (1846–1858)

Even in Indian country, news could travel quickly to distant places. From Santa Fe to Abiquiú, Mexicans related the latest rumors and alarms, and from Abiquiú along the Spanish Trail reports spread to the Great Basin. Gossip flew from Taos up the Rio Grande through the San Luis Valley and the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Valleys to northeastern Utah, or from Taos across the Sangre de Cristos to the Cimarron and Arkansas Rivers. It did not take long for news of the United States Army invasion of the Province of Nuevo Mexico to reach Utes wherever they roamed. There was an abundance of interesting news to relay in 1846.

In August Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearny’s Army of the West had marched down the Santa Fe Trail and into the provincial capital without firing a shot. One explanation for this easy triumph might have been that New Mexicans welcomed a well-organized army as a potential protector from relentless raids by nomadic Indians. It was hoped also that the United States government might be responsive to administrative needs, although not everyone was happy when Charles Bent, part owner of Bent’s Fort and a prominent resident of Taos, was appointed territorial governor in September 1846.

 

6 Sherman’s Solution: Freeze and Starve (1859–1867)

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Sherman’s Solution: Freeze and Starve (1859–1867)

Persistent waves of newcomers had washed into New Mexico and Utah since 1846–1847. They continued to arrive throughout the 1850s, with Utes gradually losing ground to white intrusions. This pattern continued in Utah in the later 1850s, while a tidal wave was bearing down on the Eastern Ute country that became Colorado.

Utah’s experiment with Indian farms was meeting with little success except at Corn Creek, where some Pahvants had already had some experience as farmers for several years. Chief Kanosh, a moderating influence there, was baptized by Mormons in 1858 and later became an elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1859 a Mormon settlement was begun on Lower Corn Creek and apparently met no resistance. In contrast to Corn Creek, so little food was produced at the Spanish Fork and Twelve Mile Farms that Timpanogots and Sanpits Indians would have starved if Mormons had not provided food during the winters of the decade’s closing years, especially since, with government funds unavailable, other provisions were not to be had.

 

7 Attempts to Create Reservations (1868–1874)

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Attempts to Create Reservations (1868–1874)

The year 1868 was a milestone in the federal government’s program to move Ute Indians to reservations. Setting aside designated lands and even getting some bands to approve of them did not mean the new arrangements would be embraced, however.

Regardless of whether the people accepted the notion that they were expected to live on reservations, the government established agencies on them, and some Utes assigned to them were henceforth usually called by the names of their agencies instead of by band names. For instance, those assigned to the Uintah Valley Agency became known as Uintahs regardless of their previous band affiliations. Another way of differentiating Utes arose, as those amenable to the reservations and regulations were considered “good Indians,” whereas those who lived according to their own inclinations—roaming off of the reservations and occasionally getting into trouble—were called “renegades.” There were many “renegades” in Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

 

8 Beating Plowshares into Swords (1875–1881)

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Beating Plowshares into Swords (1875–1881)

For Colorado’s Ute Indians, the second half of the 1870s was marked by confusion, frustration, anger, and tragedy. Utah’s Utes were adjusting to life in the Uintah Valley, as were Tabeguaches in the Uncompahgre Valley. Muaches and Capotes, reluctant for so long to take up a permanent home on a reservation in Colorado, were finally accepting the necessity of yielding to pressure. They began to move out of northern New Mexico. Many Weenuches continued to be more independent and roamed in the Four Corners area.

In late 1874 Agent S. A. Russell was notified that Tierra Amarilla would continue with a “special agent, no doubt you,” while another special agent, A. G. Irvine, would take care of Cimarrón. Services provided by the subagencies were limited, however. Toward the end of 1875 Irvine’s Indians, numbering about six or seven hundred Utes and Jicarilla Apaches, augmented by other Indians who came from time to time, were destitute. Irvine was giving them inferior and scant rations. Flour was moldy and maggot-infested, and meat was spoiled. On one occasion the recipients threw the meat in Irvine’s face. He drew his gun, and an exchange of fire ensued in which a Ute-Jicarilla named Barela was killed. Once again the military intervened by sending troops and provisions.

 

9 The Unraveling Begins (1882–1895)

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The Unraveling Begins (1882–1895)

The exiled and transplanted Ute Indians quickly dispelled any illusions about their docility. In September 1881, soon after arriving at the confluence of the Green and Duchesne Rivers where Commissioner Otto Mears had contracted with the government to put up a few temporary structures to serve as an agency, Mears visited the Uncompahgres to inspect the work and to pay Chipeta $700 for her home and farm on the Uncompahgre River. Blaming Mears for his band’s removal to Utah and for cheating Chipeta, Cohoe (McCook) tried to kill the busy little man.1 Mears escaped and shortly thereafter resigned as commissioner to concentrate on his toll roads and railroad construction through lands vacated by Utes in southwestern Colorado.

The influence of Chipeta’s extended family remained strong among the Uncompahgre Utes in Utah. When Agent William Berry took a delegation to Washington in the spring of 1881, Sapinero, McCook, and Piah, all of whom have been called her brothers, accompanied the delegation, and Sapinero was designated the Uncompahgre’s chief by government officials.

 

10 Disorder and Chaos (1896–1915)

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Disorder and Chaos (1896–1915)

In the half century since the United States Army of the West had marched into New Mexico in the 1840s, Ute life had been irrevocably disrupted by newcomers whose goals and culture were utterly different from those of the Indians. The Ute people had escaped the brutality of a massacre like that by the military of Cheyennes at Sand Creek in Colorado or extermination like that by miners and settlers of Yakis in California. The territories Utes had occupied, the resources they had depended on, their relationships with other bands of their own tribe, the traditions, and the long linear story that told the Núu-ci who they were had become a tangled skein, however.

After the passage of the General Allotment Act in 1887, it was only a matter of time until the lands of the Southern Ute Reservation and the Uintah and Ouray Reservation would become an archipelago of tiny islands of privately held allotments in a sea of public domain and white settlements. In southern Colorado, when the Muaches and Capotes had accepted allotments the Weenuches had successfully resisted that fate, but the Northern Utes were unable to muster the same kind of unity needed to avoid allotment of their reservation.

 

11 From the Ashes: Today’s Ute Indians

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From the Ashes: Today’s Ute Indians

Although disastrous changes had come to the Ute Indians and other Native American tribes in the nineteenth century, a new religion centered on peyote ceremonies brought from Mexico and the southwestern United States stirred a sense of unity, consolation, and vision. The Native American Church, a pan-Indian religious movement that grew out of this ritual, was born about 1918, but by the turn of the century Ute Indians had already learned from others about peyote and how to use its buttonlike stems.

Members of the Plains Indians tribes living in Oklahoma and South Dakota had introduced peyote to the Southern Ute Buckskin Charlie, who is believed to have been the first Ute leader of the new cult. He learned about peyote when he visited the Cheyenne and Arapaho reservation in the 1890s, and an Arapaho named Henry Lincoln came to Ignacio to lead meetings in 1900.1 Most likely, Sioux practices became well-known to Northern Utes who went to South Dakota in 1906–1908, and from them the religion soon spread all the way to Nevada’s Paiutes. Among Ute people the cult was well established by the second decade of the twentieth century. Peyote “beans” were then being sold around Dragon, Utah, and rumors were spreading that some peyote users had died there.2 A Sioux, Sam Lone Bear, also known as Cactus Pete and Pete Phillips, introduced a ritualistic variation called Cross Fire among the Northern Utes, and about half of those Indians were soon holding weekly meetings.3 Although many of the “best men” were participants, Sam Lone Bear’s personal life, which involved relationships with young girls, tarnished both his reputation and that of the new religion. Replacing Sam Lone Bear was another Lone Bear, Raymond, who then became the Uintah road chief.

 

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