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Ute Tribe

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Ute Tribe

Chief Severo and family, ca. 1899
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 United States (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico)
English, Ute
Native American Church, Traditional Tribal Religion, Christianity, other

Ute people /ˈjuːt/ are an indigenous people of the Great Basin, now living primarily in Utah and Colorado. There are three Ute tribal reservations: Uintah-Ouray in northeastern Utah (3,500 members); Southern Ute in Colorado (1,500 members); and Ute Mountain which primarily lies in Colorado, but extends to Utah and New Mexico (2,000 members). The name of the state of Utah was derived from the name Ute. The University of Utah, the state's flagship university, has adopted the Ute name as its mascot. The word Ute means "Land of the sun" in their language.[2] "Ute" possibly derived from the Western Apache word "yudah", meaning "high up". This has led to the misconception that "Ute" means people high up or mountain people.


The Ute Indians speak Numic.The Ute language belongs to the Numic division of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages and is a dialect of Southern Numic. Most mountain Utes still speak Ute but its use has become much less frequent among the southern Ute. Peoples speaking Shoshonean dialects of the Numic family include the Bannocks, Comanches, Chemehuevi, Goshutes, Paiutes and Shoshones


Further information: Ute Wars

Prior to the arrival of Mexican settlers, the Utes occupied significant portions of what are today eastern Utah, western Colorado,[3] including the San Luis Valley, and parts of New Mexico and Wyoming. The Utes were never a unified group within historic times; instead, they consisted of numerous nomadic bands that maintained close associations with other neighboring groups. The 17 largest known groups were the Capote, Cumumba, Moache, Moanumts, Pah Vant, Parianuche, San Pitch, Sheberetch, Taviwach, Timanogots, Tumpanawach, Uinta, Uncompahgre, White River, Weeminuche, and Yamperika. The original homeland of the Uto-Aztecan languages is generally considered to have existed along the border between the United States and Mexico, perhaps in the area of Arizona and New Mexico, as well as part of the Northern Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. From this area, speakers of Uto-Aztecan languages gradually diffused northward and southward, to include tribes such as the Shoshone and Comanche on the north and east, and the Aztecs in the south. Unlike many other tribal groups in this region, the Utes have no tradition or evidence of historic migration to the areas now known as Colorado and Utah—and ancestors of the Ute appear to have occupied this area or nearby areas for at least a thousand years. The last partial migration of the Utes within this area was in the year 1885.

Treaties between the United States and the Utes

Following acquisition of Ute territory from Mexico by the Treaty of Guadelupe-Hidalgo the United States made a series of treaties with the Ute:

  • 1849 treaty of peace
  • 1863 treaty relinquishing the San Luis Valley
  • Treaty with The Ute March 2, 1868 by which the Ute retained all of Colorado Territory west of longitude 107° west and relinquished all of Colorado Territory east of longitude 107° west.[4]
  • Treaty with the Capote, Muache, and Weeminuche Bands establishing the Southern Ute Reservation and the Mountain Ute Reservation.[5]

Enemies and Warrior Culture

Like other Plains Indian tribes the Utes were skilled warriors who specialized in horse mounted combat. War with neighboring tribes was mostly fought for gaining prestige, stealing horses, and revenge. Prior to a raid warriors would organize themselves into war parties made up of warriors, medicine men, and a war chief which led the party. To prepare themselves for battle Ute warriors would often fast, participate in sweat lodge ceremonies, and paint their faces and horses for special symbolic meanings. The Utes were master horsemen and could execute daring maneuvers on horseback while in battle. Unlike other plains people the Ute did not have warrior societies with the exception of the Southern Utes which developed them late and were dissolved after they went onto reservations. Warriors were mostly men but women often followed behind war parties to help gather loot, sing songs, and may even be part of the war party as warriors themselves. Women also preformed the Lame Dance to symbolize having to pull or carry heavy loads of loot after a raid.[6] The Utes used a variety of weapons including lances, bows, tomahawks, war clubs, and knives, as well as rifles, shotguns, and pistols which were obtained through raiding or trading.

The enemies of the Ute included the Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshone, Blackfoot, and Arapaho to the north of Ute territory. East and southeast of Ute territory they fought with the Sioux, Pawnee, Osage, Kiowa, Comanche, and Plains Apache. To the west and south they encountered Navajo, Paiute, and Western Shoshone. The Utes traded with various Puebloan peoples such as the Taos and were close allies with the Jicarilla who shared much of the same territory.

Contact with Spanish explorers

The Utes' first contact with Europeans was with early Spanish explorers in the 1630s. They adopted the horse, obtaining mounts through trading with the Spanish colonists in New Mexico or theft from those settlements. As a result of the new mobility, Ute culture changed dramatically in ways that paralleled the Plains Indian cultures of the Great Plains. The social upheaval resulted in various degrees of consolidation, political realignment and tension between the various Ute groups. The Utes were for the most part enemies of the Spanish and the conquered Pueblo towns. They engaged in a long series of wars, in some cases three-sided, with the Navajo, various other Apache tribes, and the Comanche, especially in the plains of eastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico.

Contact with other European settlers

The Ute experience with European-American settlers is similar to that of many other Native American groups: competition, confrontation and eventual coerced relocation to reservations. Of particular interest are the Walker War (1853–54) and Black Hawk War (1865–72) in Utah.

Over the years, friction between recently arrived white settlers and goldseekers in Utah and Colorado and local Ute groups resulted in several skirmishes and incidents. In the same period, the Ute sometimes allied with the United States in its wars with the Navajo, for example in 1863, and with the Apache.

A series of treaties established a small reservation in 1864 in northeast Utah, and a reservation in 1868, which included the western third of modern Colorado. The latter included land claimed by other tribes. Their lands were whittled away until only the modern reservations were left: a large cession of land in 1873 transferred the gold-rich San Juan area, which was followed in 1879 by the loss of most of the remaining land after the "Meeker Massacre".[7]

Eventually, the various bands of Utes were consolidated onto three reservations. Several of these bands maintain separate identities as part of the Ute tribal organizations. Although initially large and located in areas that white settlers deemed undesirable (occupying parts of Utah and most of western Colorado), the territory of the reservations was repeatedly reduced by various government actions, and encroachment by white settlers and mining interests. In the 20th century, several U.S. federal court decisions restored portions of the original reservation land to the Ute Tribes' jurisdiction and awarded monetary compensations for losses.

Northern Ute culture

The Northern Utes, consisting of the Whiteriver, Uintah, and Uncompahgre bands, are exceptional artists and produced extraordinary examples of religious and ceremonial beadwork, unusual art forms, and designed and decorated weapons of war in their traditional culture. The Ute obtained glass beads and other trade items from early trading contact with Europeans and rapidly incorporated their use into religious, ceremonial, and spartan objects.

Like their southern neighbors, the Diné (Navajo), today a large percentage of Northern Ute are members of the Native American Church and participate in sacred ceremonies that use peyote, a small spineless cactus. Traditional Ute healers use peyote to treat infections, and a variety of other plants, including Elk Root, Bear Root (Ligusticum porteri), and tobacco sage. The Ute have integrated peyote religion into their culture; its artistic and expressive influences pervade their art and rich cultural and ceremonial objects. There is evidence the Ute have used peyote obtained through trade and other potent ceremonial plants used as entheogens since ancient times, such as the dried leaves of Larb (a species of Manzanita), tobacco sage collected from the Escalante area (a mild hallucinogen when smoked), and the potent and narcotic White Uinta water lily. Tobacco Sage was also brewed into a tea with Elk Root and the root of the Yellow Uinta water lily, and used to treat tumors and cancer. (While the root of the Yellow Uinta water lily is toxic in large amounts, small amounts can be used to strengthen the heart muscle in people with heart ailments.).

Ute religious beliefs borrowed much from the Plains Indians after the arrival of the horse. The Northern and Uncompahgre Ute were the only group of Indians known to create ceremonial pipes out of salmon alabaster, as well as a rare black pipestone found only in the creeks that border the southeastern slopes of the Uinta Mountains in Utah and Colorado. Although Ute pipe styles are unique, they resemble more closely the styles of their eastern neighbors from the Great Plains. The black pipestone is also used to make lethal war clubs that warriors used to great effect from the back of a horse. The Ute have a religious aversion to handling thunderwood (wood from a tree struck by lightning) and believe that the thunder beings would strike down any Ute Indian that touched or handled such wood. This is also a Diné (Navajo) belief. There is extensive evidence that contact between the two groups existed since ancient times.

Each spring the Utes (Northern and Southern) hold their traditional Bear Dances. Origin of the Bear Dance can be traced back several centuries. Each year, a mid-summer fasting ceremony known as the Sun Dance is held; this ceremony has important spiritual significance to the Ute.

The Uncompahgre Ute Indians from central Colorado are one of the first documented groups of people in the world known to utilize the effect of mechanoluminescence through the use of quartz crystals to generate light, likely hundreds of years before the modern world recognized the phenomenon. The Ute constructed special ceremonial rattles made from buffalo rawhide which they filled with clear quartz crystals collected from the mountains of Colorado and Utah. When the rattles were shaken at night during ceremonies, the friction and mechanical stress of the quartz crystals impacting together produced flashes of light which partly shone through the translucent buffalo hide. These rattles were believed to call spirits into Ute Ceremonies, and were considered extremely powerful religious objects.

Historic Ute bands

The Ute were divided into several larger and smaller bands, which today mostly are organized as the Northern Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe:

Northern Ute Tribe (Uinta Utes)

  • Yapudttka (Yampadttka, Yamparka, Yamparika, lived in the Yampa River Valley and the adjacent regions, known today as White River Utes or Yamparika Utes)
  • Pahdteeahnooch (Pahdteechnooch, Parianuc, Parianuche, later called Uncompahgre, lived along the Grand River in Colorado and Utah, known today as Grand River Utes or Parianuche Utes)
  • Taveewach (Taviwach, Taviwac, Tabeguache, later called Uncompahgre, lived in river valleys of the Gunnison River and Uncompahgre River, as well in the Elk Mountains west toward the City of Grand Junction, known today as Taviwach Utes)
  • Muhgruhtahveeach (include all Northern Utes, who lived in Utah, known today as Utah Utes or Unita)
    • Cumumba (also called Weber Utes, lived along the Weber River, intermarried with the Western Shoshone,[8] known today as Cumumba Utes)
    • Toompahnahwach (Tumpanuwac, Tumpanawach - ‘Fish-eaters’, also called Tumpipanogo or Timanogot,[9] lived in the Wasatch Range centered around Mount Timpanogos, along the southern and eastern shores of Utah Lake of the Utah Valley, and in Heber Valley, Uinta Basin and Sanpete Valley, utilized the river canyons of the Spanish Fork, Diamond Fork, Hobble Creek, American Fork and Provo River, in Spanish called Lagunas - ‘Lake People’, Come Pescados - ‘Fish-eaters’, known today as Timpanog Utes)
    • Sahpeech (Sanpeech, Sanpits, lived in the Sanpete Valley and Sevier River Valley and along the San Pitch River, today known as San Pitch Utes)
    • Pahvant (lived west of the Wasatch Range in the Pavant Range towards the Nevada border along the Sevier River in the desert around Sevier Lake and Fish Lake, therefore they called themselves Pahvant - ‘living near the water’, in their way of living they resembled their neighbors, the Kaibab Paiute, and intermarried just like the Sahyehpeech with neighboring Goshute and Paiute, known as Pahvant Utes, today absorbed into the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah)[10][11]
    • Yoowetum (Yoovwetuh, Uinta-at, later called Tavaputs, lived in the Uintah Basin, Uinta Mountains, including the Utah Lake and Great Salt Lake, along the Strawberry River in the west and the Tavaputs Plateau in the Green River-Colorado River-system in the east, known today as Uinta-Ats Utes)
    • Sahyehpeech (Sheberetch, lived in the vicinity of today Moab, had almost no direct contact with Europeans until 1850 Mormons penetrated into their territory, about 1870 by war and disease decimated Sahyehpeech joined other Ute bands, known today as Sheberetch Utes)
    • Moanunts (Moanumts, lived in the Upper Sevier River Valley in central Utah, in the Otter Creek region south of Salina and in the vicinity of Fish Lake, today absorbed into the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah)

Southern Ute Tribe

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe

Contemporary times

Present-day Utes occupy a small fraction of their former territories.

Northern Ute Tribe

The largest tribes are the Northern Ute, which live on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah. It is the largest of several groups of Ute and Shoshone Indians that were relocated to the Northern Ute Indian Reservation during the late 19th and early 20th century, including the Northern Shoshone, Uintah, Uncompahgre, White River, and Southern Ute.

Some believe that the Northern Ute disfranchised the other Ute groups when they reorganized during the mid-20th century and gained control of the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation as a result. The people of the U & O reservation are well aware of their own ancestries. Lawsuits and litigation have been commonplace between mixed-blood Utes and the Northern Ute Tribe for rights to tribal enrollment and privileges. The Northern Ute Tribe has a 3/4 blood quantum requirement[dubious ] for tribal membership, higher than most tribes. Mixed-blood Utes with a lower percentage of Ute ancestry have accused the tribe of disfranchisement in terms of rights to tribal lands and equal legal treatment.

Some affiliates, descendants of certain Northern Ute families who in earlier years decided against enrollment and federal recognition of their native ancestry, live on the reservation land holdings owned by particular families since the Federal government forced relocation in 1881. The Affiliate Utes have recently applied for federal recognition and are involved in litigation with the United States and the Northern Ute tribe. The Affiliates should not be confused with other mixed-blood Utes, which families did not choose to be unrecognized. Some Utes of partial descent are enrolled as Northern Utes, but are also active members of the Affiliates.

Northern Utes can be found all over the world. They have learned to adapt to various societies. A northern Ute is also called Nuchu. Various bands have more complex names and each name has a meaning. Over the years the Northern Ute language has changed extensively with the combinations of different dialects and English language influences.

The Northern Ute Tribe began repurchasing former tribal lands following the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. They gained return of the 726,000-acre (2,940 km2) Hill Creek Extension by the federal government in 1948. More recent court decisions of the 1980s have granted the Northern Utes "legal jurisdiction" over three million acres (12,000 km²) of alienated reservation lands. Discoveries of oil and gas on Ute land in Utah hold the promise of increased living standards for tribal members.

In 1965, the Northern Tribe agreed to allow the US Bureau of Reclamation to divert a portion of its water from the Uinta Basin (part of the Colorado River Basin) to the Great Basin. The diversion would provide water supply for the Bonneville Unit of the Central Utah Project. In exchange, the Bureau of Reclamation agreed to plan and construct the Unitah, Upalco, and Ute Indian Units of the Central Utah Project to provide storage of the tribe's water. By 1992, the Bureau of Reclamation had made little or no progress on construction of these facilities. To compensate the Tribe for the Bureau of Reclamation's failure to meet its 1965 construction obligations, Title V of the Central Utah Project Completion Act contained the Ute Indian Rights Settlement. Under the settlement, the Northern Tribe received $49.0 million for agricultural development, $28.5 million for recreation and fish and wildlife enhancement, and $195 million for economic development.

Southern Ute Tribe

The Southern Ute Indian Reservation is located in southwestern Colorado, with its capital at Ignacio. The area around the Southern Ute Indian reservation are the hills of Bayfield and Ignacio, Colorado.

The Southern Ute are the wealthiest of the tribes and claim financial assets approaching $2 billion.[13] Gambling, tourism, oil & gas, and real estate leases, plus various off-reservation financial and business investments, have contributed to their success. The tribe owns the Red Cedar Gathering Company, which owns and operates natural gas pipelines in and near the reservation.[14] The tribe also owns the Red Willow Production Company, which began as a natural gas production company on the reservation. It has expanded to explore for and produce oil and natural gas in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Red Willow has offices in Ignacio, Colorado and Houston, Texas.[15] The Sky Ute Casino and its associated entertainment and tourist facilities, together with tribally operated Lake Capote, draw tourists. It hosts the Four Corners Motorcycle Rally[16] each year. The Ute operate KSUT,[17] the major public radio station serving southwestern Colorado and the Four Corners.

Ute Mountain Tribe

The Ute Mountain Ute are descendants of the Weminuche band, who moved to the western end of the Southern Ute Reservation in 1897. (They were led by Chief Ignacio, for whom the eastern capital is named). The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Reservation is located near Towaoc, Colorado. It includes small sections of Utah and New Mexico. The Ute Mountain Tribal Park abuts Mesa Verde National Park and includes many Anasazi ruins. The White Mesa Community of Utah (near Blanding) is part of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe but is largely autonomous.

Modern challenges

Gradual assimilation into American culture has presented both challenges and opportunities for the Utes. The current conditions of the Utes are similar to those of many Native Americans living on reservations. Cultural differences between the Utes and the rest of America have contributed to pockets of poverty, educational difficulties and societal marginalization, although the Southern Ute Tribe is financially successful.


The Ute use the roots and flowers of Abronia fragrans for stomach and bowel troubles.[18]

In popular culture

  • When the Legends Die (1963), a book by Hal Borland, is a story about a Ute boy growing up on a reservation after his parents die, and becoming a rodeo sensation. A film adaptation by the same name was released in 1972.
  • Beardance by Will Hobbs is a young adult novel set in the San Juan Mountains, where a Weeminuche Ute boy helps two orphaned bear cubs while completing his spirit mission.
  • James D. Doss (1939, Kentucky, -17 May 2012) was a noted American mystery novel author. He was the creator of the popular fictional Ute detective/rancher Charlie Moon, of whom he wrote 17 mystery novels. (Copied from WP article on Doss.)

Notable Utes

  • R. Carlos Nakai, Native American flutist
  • Chief Ouray, leader of the Uncompahgre band of the Ute tribe
  • Chipeta, Ouray's wife and Ute delegate to negotiations with federal government
  • Joseph Rael, (b. 1935), ceremonial dancer and shamanism writer
  • Raoul Trujillo, dancer, choreographer, and actor
  • Polk, Ute-Paiute chief
  • Posey, Ute-Paiute chief

See also


Further reading

  • McPherson, Robert S. (2011) As If the Land Owned Us: An Ethnohistory of the White Mesa Utes. ISBN 978-1-60781-145-9.
  • Silbernagel, Robert. (2011) Troubled Trails: The Meeker Affair and the Expulsion of Utes from Colorado. ISBN 978-1-60781-129-9.

External links

Template:AmCyc Poster
  • Ute Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Agency (Northern Ute Tribe)
  • Southern Ute Indian Tribe
  • Ute Mountain Ute Tribe
  • Ute Tribe Education Department
  • Ute article, Encyclopedia of North American Indians
  • Removing Classrooms from the Battlefield: Liberty, Paternalism, and the Redemptive Promise of Educational Choice, 2008 BYU Law Review 377 The Utes and Richard Henry Pratt
  • Four Corners Motorcycle Rally
  • White River/Meeker Massacre
  • Utah History to Go

Template:Indigenous People of CO

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