Ute Indians

photo courtesy of Colorado Historical Society

The Ute Indians have probably lived in Colorado some 1500 years before the Spanish explorers first arrived in the territory that is now Colorado.

There isn't much known about the inner workings of their culture, but what we do know is that they were a small band of people who were primarily food gatherers and hunters of small animals.

The Ute Indians did not live in tribes like other Native Americans, but in what is called extended families.

The larger groups of people related to each other would get together in the spring for their annual ceremony.

After the annual meeting, they would split up and go to the mountains for the summer and the plains or high plateaus for the winter.

A typical Ute family would consist of a man, wife, their parents, children, married children and grandchildren.  At times there would be a widowed relative, such as a sister or brother of the man or wife living with the family.

It was hard to find food for these many people in a family.  The men spent most of their time hunting and fishing.  They would clear the land for camp, make tools and hunting weapons.

The women would bring in wood and water, make clothes, cook, tan hides, make cooking utensils, put up the tipis, and gather nuts and berries.

The older children or grandparents would watch the younger children.

Age is respected in the Native American culture and children would usually pay more attention to a grandparent or older relative than to their parents.

The "Old People" were the wise ones.  The grandfather would know when the fish would come in the spring and where the deer trails were.

Grandmother spent years gathering berries and knew when they would be ripe to pick.

The old people knew the proper ceremonies so the families would be safe, the game, nuts and berries would be plentiful.

Children were so important to the Utes that they had separate names for each growth period in a child's life.  They were a happy bunch of kids while they were growing up.

The children were never spanked or badly punished.  A word or scolding were the worst treatment they received.

When the children became teenagers, the hard work began.  They were considered adults and were expected to do the job of an adult of the family according to their sex.

The Ute Indians left their winter camps once a year for a holiday event called the Bear Dance.

Usually mid-March when the spring thunder rumbled, many families came together for several days to celebrate.

The Bear Dance ceremony was in conjunction with the bear waking up from hibernation.  This is the explanation from an old Ute man:

"When bear wakes up, he's weak, he needs food, and he doesn't see well.  But when they hold the dance, it helps him get out, because the helpers say to the dancers, 'Get out and dance, you, because bear is waking up and that woman wants you to dance with her'."

The dance lasted several days and ended in a large feast.  It was a great time to see other families and visit, get the latest gossip and stories and a courting time for the young folks.

After the Bear Dance, there was also the Round Dance, that drove out illness and ensure the health of other families for the coming year.

The ceremony is one of the few things that did not change after the Utes met the white man.

The Ute Indians would walk everywhere.  Hunting, traveling, going to ceremonies, etc. The horse wasn't introduced to them until the Spanish started exploring the region.

The Spanish needed people to work for them so they would trade the Utes horses for children or young adults in their families.  The girls would be trained to do housekeeping and the boys would take care of sheep and cattle the Spanish owned.

The horse made all the difference in the world to the Utes.  Now they could travel quickly from place to place.  They could go hunting further than their immediate area would allow.

Buffalo was discovered by the Utes and changed their lives.  Old ways of living were replaced by new ones.

They still lived in family groups, but when the buffalo ranged into large herds in the summer, the Utes came together for hunting.

Huge amounts of hides and meat were transported by the horse to camps.  The meat was dried for eating during the seasons and the hides were used for clothing and shelter.

Along with the increased mobility of the horse came wars with other tribes.  This was because of trespassing onto their land during buffalo hunts.

More families were camping close to each other and therefore conflicts would arise.  Strong young men would tout themselves as leaders of the camp, the hunt or of war.

The women were an important part of the family society.  During wars they stayed a safe distance, packed and ready to take off to safety.

But when raids were made onto their land, then they went into battle like the men. They were armed and wore full battle dress.

The main job of the women in war was to scalp the dead enemy and take their possessions.

Women took part in the war dance after a successful campaign.  All possessions that were taken from the battle were shared throughout the band, except scalps.  These were sewn onto the shirts of the men who killed them in the battle.

Eventually, the Ute Indians started to take on the traditions of the Plains Indians. But they only integrated those items of the culture that fit into their existing society.

The Utes had adapted to many challenges throughout their lives. The coming of the horse, guns and integration with the Plains Indians.

Through all of this, they remain a integral part of Colorado history.

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