The Indigenous Period of Colorado
The first Europeans did not come to Colorado until the 1600s, but that does not mean people did not live in Colorado. On the contrary, Colorado had a vibrant and complex pre-European tradition. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, Colorado’s culture and population was made up by a number of Native tribes (Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Pueblo, Shoshone, and Ute). The Ute Tribe, who happen to be Colorado’s oldest residents, were the most populous group of the time. The Ute Tribe’s early relationship with Colorado was able to span centuries because of their deep respect for the land.
The Ute’s relationship with Colorado is intertwined with their creation story. There is no concrete date for when the Utes arrived in Colorado, though anthropologists estimate their arrival between one and two thousand years ago. The Utes themselves do not claim a migration story, instead believing that they have always been a part of the mountains and always will be. That belief comes from their creation story, even as the story varies some between the Utes. A coyote, another longtime resident of Colorado, is one of the central figures in all versions of the story. And while the story does vary slightly depending on the region the theme remains the same, the Ute people were placed in Colorado as opposed to moving there1. The landscape of Colorado also shaped their social interactions.
The Utes were a nomadic people and because of the vastness of Colorado and the region as a whole; traveling in smaller groups was more effective. The smaller groups, or bands, consisted of a few families. Despite not traveling together, separate bands were connected through a common language, identified by the Southern Ute tribe as a dialect of the Uto-Aztecan called Shoshonean. Some bands specialized in different skills, like medicine, making trade between the bands necessary and another aspect that united the bands. There were also marriages that were arranged between seperate bands. In total it is estimated that there were thirteen bands, but membership was not permanent, as evidenced by marriage, making an exact number difficult to ascertain. In times of war the bands would unite to fight a common foe, furthering the idea of a common Ute identity regardless of physical proximity. The Utes would also unite to participate in their common religious ceremonies, including the preeminent ritual, the Bear Dance.
To celebrate the start of spring the different bands would participate in Bear Dance ritual together. Spring held special meaning for the early Utes, as it did for many other peoples. To the Utes the Bear Dance not only celebrated spring, it symbolized rejuvenation. The Utes viewed spring as Mother Earth beginning a new cycle, a time where the plants begin to blossom and animals awaken from their winter hibernation. It is the oldest ritual the Utes have and it is one that continues today. The Bear Dance took place over multiple days and was essentially a new year’s celebration. The time was also used for the separate bands to socialize and arrange marriages. The Bear Dance has no official origin date. Instead, the Ute people believe that the dance was a gift to them from the bear. That idea is another example of their close ties with nature and their surrounding environment.
The Ute’s nomadic lifestyle and environment shaped their diets because it defined what foods they were able to access easily. Being nomadic meant that planting was not a big priority, instead the Utes were hunter-gatherers.
Men would hunt larger game such as elk and deer. They did not hunt buffalo until the Spanish introduced the Utes to horses in the 17th century. Ute hunters used simple tools made of stone and wood for hunting. Even with rudimentary tools the Utes became expert hunters. This expertise meant they were able to use every part of the animal they killed. The animal hide was a very valuable piece of the animal, it was used to cover shelters and also for clothing. Using every part of an animal allowed the Utes to hunt fewer animals at a time, because a single animal was able to meet many of the Utes’ needs. Along with fully using an animal, the Utes also only hunted what they needed; they did not hunt for sport or pleasure. Food acquisition did not solely fall on the men, Ute women also played an important role in ensuring that there was enough to eat.
Typically it was the women who gathered and would also trap small animals to eat. They would gather berries, edible plants, and roots. Some plants, like berries, would be eaten raw, while others were cooked. To get the roots more easily a digging stick was used. Those that gathered were careful to never take too much and rotated between what they gathered to ensure that there was food in the future. Additionally, hunters would rotate what they killed, as a way to ensure that they would not over hunt. The efforts made by the Ute’s ensured that they were able to live in Colorado for years without running out of food or items for trade.
The hides that Utes tanned were a sought after commodity and they were used in trade. Ute women in particular were heralded for their quill work. The quill work would adorn dresses, leggings, moccasins, and cradleboards. Those items could also be used for trade, either between bands or even with different tribes entirely. The Pueblos became a consistent trade partner for the Utes. The pots that the Utes would use for food preparation would often come from the Pueblos.
The Utes adapted to the land they called home, which allowed them to prosper and maintain the land. Moreover they were cognizant never to over hunt or over gather to ensure more resources would be there in the future. The Ute way of life, as well the way of life of many other tribes was drastically altered when the Spanish began to colonize Colorado in the 17th century. Today there are two tribes that are recognized by Colorado, the Southern Ute Tribe and the Mountain Ute Tribe.
1 For more information on the creation story- http://utahindians.org/archives/whiteMesa/earlyPeoples.html and