The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah & Ouray Reservation is made up of the Whiteriver, Uintah, and Uncompahgre bands. 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.
Official Tribal Name: Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah & Ouray Reservation
Recognition Status: Federally Recognized
Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning:
A northern Ute is called Nuchu. Various bands have more complex names and each name has a meaning.
Common Name / Meaning of Common Name:
Northern Ute Tribe, Ouray Ute, Uintah Ute
Alternate names / Alternate spellings:
Name in other languages:
State(s) Today: Colorado
Traditional Territory: The Ute people are the oldest residents of Colorado, inhabiting the mountains and vast areas of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Eastern Nevada, Northern New Mexico and Arizona. Archeologists say ancestors of the Ute appear to have occupied this area or nearby areas for at least a thousand years. According to tribal history, they have lived here since the beginning of time.
Ancestors of the Utes were the Uto-Aztecs, who spoke one common language; they possessed a set of central values, and had a highly developed society.
The Utes settled around the lake areas of Utah, some of which became the Paiute, other groups spread north and east and separated into the Shoshone and Comanche people, and some traveled south becoming the Chemehuevi and Kawaiisus. The remaining Ute people became a loose confederation of tribal units called bands. The names of the bands and the areas they lived in before European contact are as follows:
The Mouache band lived on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, from Denver south to Trinidad, Colorado, and further south to Las Vegas, New Mexico.
The Caputa band lived east of the Continental Divide, south of the Conejos River and in the San Luis Valley near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. They frequented the region near Chama and Tierra Amarilla. A few family units also lived in the shadow of Chimney Rock, now a designated United States National Monument.
The Weenuchiu occupied the valley of the San Juan River and its north tributaries in Colorado and Northwestern New Mexico. The Uncompahgre (Tabeguache) were located near the Uncompahgre and Gunnison, and Elk Rivers near Montrose and Grand Junction, Colorado.
The White River Ute (Parianuche and Yamparika) lived in the alleys of the White and Yampa river systems, and in the North and middle park regions of the Colorado Mountains, extending west to Eastern Utah. The Uintah lived east of Utah Lake to the Uinta Basin of the Tavaputs plateau near the Grand and Colorado River systems.
The Pahvant occupied the desert area in the Sevier Lake region and west of the Wasatch Mountains near the Nevada boundary. They inter-married with the Goshute and Paiute in Southern Utah and Nevada. The Timonogots lived in the south and eastern area of Utah Lake, to North Central Utah. The Sanpits (San Pitch) lived in the Sapete Valley, Central Utah and Sevier River Valley. The Moanumts lived in the upper Sapete Valley, Central Utah, in the Otter Creek region of Salum, Utah and Fish Lake area; they also intermarried with the Southern Paiutes. The Sheberetch lived in the area now known as Moab, Utah, and were more desert oriented. The Comumba/Weber band was a very small group and intermarried and joined the Northern and Western Shoshone.
Today, the Mouache and Caputa bands comprise the Southern Ute Tribe and are headquartered at Ignacio, Colorado. The Weenuchiu, now known as the Ute Mountain Utes are headquartered at Towaoc, Colorado. The Tabeguache, Grand, Yampa and Uintah bands comprise the Northern Ute Tribe located on the Uintah-Ouray reservation next to Fort Duchesne, Utah.
Following acquisition of Ute territory from Mexico by the Treaty of Guadalupe-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.
- Treaty with the Capote, Muache, and Weeminuche Bands establishing the Southern Ute Reservation and the Mountain Ute Reservation
Reservation: Uintah and Ouray Reservation and Off-Reservation Trust Land in northeastern Utah.
Population at Contact:
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Tribal Enrollment Requirements:
Charter: Name of Governing Body: Tribal Council
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Language Classification: Uto-Aztecan -> Shoshonean
Language Dialects: Shoshonean.
Number of fluent Speakers:
Bands, Gens, and Clans
It is believed that the people who speak Shoshonean separated from other Ute-Aztecan speaking groups, such as the Paiute, Goshute, Shoshone-Bannock, Comanche, Chemehuevi and some tribes in California.
- Southern Ute Indian Tribe of the Southern Ute Reservation
- Ute Mountain Tribe of the Ute Mountain Reservation
The Utes traded with various Puebloan peoples such as the Taos and were close allies with the Jicarilla Apache who shared much of the same territory.
The enemies of the Ute included the Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshone, Blackfeet, 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.
Ceremonies / Dances:
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.
Modern Day Events & Tourism:
Legends / Oral Stories:
Art & Crafts:
The Northern Utes 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.
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.
Clothing: Blankets would be made from rabbit skin. Clothing would be made of fringed buckskin.
Housing: The Utes originally lived in wickiups. These were conical, pole framed shelters that were covered with juniper bark or tule. Later they were to adapt to the tipi, which they borrowed from the Plains Tribes after they acquired horses. Women prepared and constructed the tipis, and they were also the owners of it and all the property it contained, except hunting and war weapons.
Subsistance: Prior to acquiring the horse, the Utes lived off the land establishing a unique relationship with the ecosystem. Prior to the arrival of the horse, the Utes travelled on foot. They would travel and camp in familiar sites and use well established routes such as the Ute Trail that can still be seen in the forests of the Grand Mesa, and is the forerunner of the scenic highway traversing through South Park, and Cascade, Colorado.
The travels of the nomads would be in accordance with seasonal changes. While the men would hunt, the women were busy gathering seed grasses, nuts, berries, roots and greens. The bow used by the Utes were made of cedar, chokecherry and sheep horn. Knives were made from flint.
Life changed dramatically with the arrival of the horse, acquired from the Spanish. The Ute were soon raising horses, as well as cattle and sheep. They were now also able to engage upon communal bison hunts. By 1830, however, the bison had virtually disappeared from Ute territory.
They would engage in raiding parties. They became respected warriors and feared enemies. The Utes also became involved in the trading of horses as well as in the slave trade.
Religion & Spiritual Beliefs:
Shamans were powerful medicine men who , it was believed, could control the weather. The powers of the Shaman came from dreams. The Utes are a religious people who practiced an animalistic type of worship, attributing different powers and fields of wisdom to different animals.
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 has existed since ancient times.
Wedding Customs: The Utes practised polygamy. A man would customarily marry sisters. He would also take into his family the widow of his brother.
Ute Chiefs & Famous People:
- Polk, Ute-Paiute chief
- Posey, Ute-Paiute chief
- Chief Ouray – leader of the Uncompahgre band of the Ute tribe
- Chipeta – Ouray’s wife and Ute delegate to negotiations with federal government
- Raoul Trujillo – dancer, choreographer, and actor
- Joseph Rael, (b. 1935), dancer, author, and spiritualist
- R. Carlos Nakai – Native American flutist
Prior to the arrival of Mexican settlers, the Utes occupied significant portions of what are today eastern Utah, western Colorado, 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.
With the coming of the Mormons, the southern Utes were pressured to adopt a more agrarian lifestyle. The Northern Utes, however resisted the farming way of life. They felt that it was folly to stay in one place. The Mormons, however, continued to settle down on more and more of their land.
The Northern Utes (Ouray’s) embarked on a series of raids against Mormon settlers. This led to what has become known as the Walker War, fought during 1853 and 1854. In 1869 the defeated Northern Utes were forced onto the Uintah Valley Reservation.
Chief Ouray was the last great Utah chief. In the 1870’s he travelled with his wife to Washington, D.C. to try to save his people from being moved to the reservation. But after some of his young warriors wreaked havoc in what has come to be known as the Meeker massacre, Ouray’s people were moved to a reservation at Ignacio, Colorado.
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. As a part of the federal Indian termination policy the US government partitioned the tribe in 1954 automatically classifying any tribal member with 1/2 or less blood quantum as a mixed-blood.
With the repudiation of the termination policy in 1970, mixed-bloods hoped for restoration to the tribe. Since 2002, they have been seeking civil action to repeal the Ute Partition Act. 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. 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 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.
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