A History of Utah’s American Indians, Chapter 5

A History of Utah’s American Indians, © 2000

“The Northern Utes of Utah,” pp.167–224

Clifford Duncan

Creation and Migration Stories of the Utes

The story of Sinauf, the god who was half man, half wolf, and his brothers Coyote and Wolf has been told many times in tipis and wickiups. According to Ute legend, these powerful animal-people kept the world in balance before humans were created. After Sinauf made people, humans took responsibility to care for the world, and in time they created many stories of their predecessors. These stories became the basis of Ute history and culture and defined the relationship of Ute Indians with all living elements, both spiritually and physically.

Most often the stories were told during the winter months. As snow drifted in under the tipis through little gaps, children scrambled to cover the drafts. By the fire sat the elder, the storyteller. His listeners sat in a circle, bundled tightly in warm buffalo or rabbit robes, waiting eagerly for him to begin what could be a long night of stories. There were tales of acts of courage during summer’s skirmishes and bravery during the fall hunts to be added to the tribe’s oral history. But, always a favorite was the story of how the Nuche–the Utes–first came to be.

“Far to the south Sinauf was preparing for a long journey to the north. He had made a bag, and in this bag he placed selected pieces of sticks–all different yet the same size. The bag was a magic bag. Once Sinauf put the sticks into the bag, they changed into people. As he put more and more sticks into the bag, the noise the people made inside grew louder, thus arousing the curiosity of the animals.

“After filling his magic bag, Sinauf closed it and went to prepare for his journey. Among the animals, Coyote was the most curious. In fact, this particular brother of Sinauf was not only curious but contrary as well, opposing almost everything Sinauf created and often getting into trouble. When Coyote heard about Sinauf’s magic bag full of stick people, he grew very curious…I want to see what those people look like.’ He thought. With that, he made a little hole with his flint knife near the top of the bag and peeked in. He laughed at what he saw and heard, for the people were a strange new creation and had many languages and sons.

“When Sinauf finished his preparations and prayers he was ready for the journey northward. He picked up the bag, threw it over his shoulder and headed for the Una-u-quich, the distant high mountains. From the tops of those mountains, Sinauf could see long distances across the plains to the east and north, and from there he planned to distribute the people throughout the world.

“Sinauf was anxious to complete his long journey, so he did not take time to eat and soon became very weak. Due to his weakness, he did not notice the bag getting lighter. For, through Coyote’s hole in the top of the bag, the people had been jumping out, a few at a time. Those who jumped out created their families, bands, and tribes.

“Finally reaching the Una-u-quich, Sinauf stopped. As he sat down he noticed the hole in the bag and how light it was. The only people left were those at the bottom of the bag. As he gently lifted them out he spoke to them and said, ‘My children, I will call you Utikas, and you shall roam these beautiful mountains. Be brave and strong.’ Then he carefully put them in different places, singing a song as he did so. When he finished, he left them there and returned to his home in the south.”1

Other myths tell of the creation of diversity in the land and how various creatures chose their own special places. They also tell how animals and people lost the ability to communicate with each other, drifting into different lifeways.


In pre-horse days, Ute family groups lived largely independently of others. Interfamily cooperation was limited to a few activities. Some activities were directed by a leader, who was “Chief” only as long as the activity needed supervision. Men and women who acquired reputations for wisdom, spiritual power, healing ability, or success in hunting or warfare were consulted. When food resources were abundant enough to enable a number of families to live in the same village, there was a village leader. His authority was limited to suggestions; he had no authority to enforce his suggestions.

Men hunted and fished, made ropes, bows, and arrows. They read the stars of the sky and the geography of the land while traveling the seasonal circuit of the family’s territory. Some were also shamans, song-singers, or temporary leaders. Those who displayed skill in hunting and defending the People were admired. Women gathered foods and prepared them, sewed and repaired clothing and shelters, hauled wood and carried water, prepared medicines for the sick. Children were loved, fondled, and amused with toys, stories, and songs.

The acquisition of the horse enabled the Utes to travel more widely in search of foods and to transport that food from farther distances. Thus, the People could gather in larger villages for longer periods of time. As groups grew larger, some leaders acquired more followers, although none had authority over all aspects of Ute life. They were considered leaders because people chose to follow them, not because they chose to govern.


The Ute Chief Atchee, date unknown

The Ute people followed the cycle of the seasons. Each group traveled within a specific territory in search of food, returning to their hunting and gathering areas year after year. In general, the pattern was moving to deserts and valleys during the winter and to mountains in the summer.

When the gathering season began, families would leave their winter villages and go out into the hills and desert valleys. Ute women gathered and dug cactus, various barks and seeds, and roots and tubers. Many of these plants and seeds were dried, placed in baskets, and stored in pits dug in the ground and then covered with earth. To gather the seeds, the women made finely woven baskets.

During the gathering season, the men kept busy either helping with the gathering or hunting small desert animals. The men set deadfalls to catch a few rodents, squirrels, or birds to supplement the diet. They also used a method of setting fire to brush and killing the animals that emerged. The time of summer harvesting was especially good for the Utes. The seeds, berries, and roots were plentiful. It was a time when families could get together for hunts and festivals and gossip about their winter adventures.

Fall was the time when seeds had to be stored, meat had to be dried, clothing had to be made and repaired, as did utensils such as pouches and bags, baskets and water jugs. This was also the time of great large game hunts, including some for buffalo. Many families would get together, feasting and preparing for the hunt. The hunters would ride out to find and bring back as much meat as they could carry. When the men returned, there was another gathering, with gambling, singing, and courting. These hunts were very important socially.

When the snow came, the People left their homes in the hills for the warmer flatlands. Women assembled their supply of seeds, roots, pine nuts, and dried berries and put them into storage pits. They piled meat on willow racks at the top of their tipis and hung jerky from the poles. They stored willows for making baskets, fiber, and string. They also stored great bunches of rabbit skin cordage for making blankets.

Throughout the winter the men hunted. They shot birds and small animals with their bows and arrows and did some ice fishing. They also trapped small rodents and birds. The People knew how to use alternate sources for food if game became scarce. The long winter evenings were spent sitting around the fire listening to the old ones tell stories of the creation and why things were the way they were. The Utes lived a busy but happy life, enjoying the bounty of nature.

The shelter and clothing of the Utes fit their lifestyle. Being often on the move, everything had to be either portable or disposable. The people lived in either brush shelters or tipis. The environment determined the kind of housing. In the desert where materials were scarce, they used brush or grass to make shelters. In more forested lands, there were trees for lodge poles and big-game animals for hides. These were tanned and sewn together with sinew of different animals to make the tipi’s cover.

The brush and willow houses were cool in the summer but could be easily heated by an open fire just outside. One family might build several in the course of a year’s travels, leaving them behind as they moved on. The tipi was portable, easily raised, and waterproof. With its wind deflecting small flap at the top, it was well ventilated even with a fire burning inside. It was warm during the winter and cool in the summer.

Women made the clothing. In warm weather the women wore a short skirt of shredded bark or buckskin and the men wore breechcloths. In winter women wore ankle-length dresses; men wore shirts and leggings of tanned animal skins. The hides of buffalo, deer, antelope, elk, and mountain sheep were tanned and treated. Sinew thread was used for sewing. Blankets were made of rabbit skin, deerskin, buffalo skin, or of woven cloth traded from Pueblo people of New Mexico. The moccasins, shirts, leggings, and dresses used in festivities were often fringed and tied with hair or small tanned skins decorated with paint. Some of the garments were embroidered.

The Utes designated time and the seasons according to the position of the sun and the stars. Certain stars told the Ute people of the coming of the various seasons. The Jack Rabbit, as they referred to the Big Dipper, was their clock as to the time of the night. Its position also foretold the seasons.

The power of healing was an important aspect of Ute life. The Poowagudt (medicine man) used abilities bestowed upon him by spiritual or natural powers. The Utes discovered by experience what was good for them and what was not. To the Utes, disease was an entity, something which took possession of the person to do them harm. The Poowagudt was called upon to get rid of the evil. He might sit up all night with that person and conjure. Through the use of chants, drums, and spiritual objects, the Poowagudt discovered what the ailment was and what should be given to treat it.

These beliefs of the Ute people were based upon their tradition, taught to each generation. But contact with white society changed this. The old religion of the People is slowly dying out. The modern doctor is beginning to be accepted for his powers.

Ute Lands, Bands, and Early History

The Utes and their ancestors called the land of the eastern Great Basin and western Rocky Mountains home for hundreds of years before it was discovered and explored by Europeans. Through the Numic language spoken by the Utes and related tribes such as Goshute, Paiute, Shoshone, Bannock, and Comanche, it is possible to trace the later migrations made by these people, whose languages are part of the same language family.

The Ute relationship with the land and their love for it tied their culture closely to the earth and its abundance. The land of the Utes was about 225,000 square miles: from Fillmore, Utah, on the west to Colorado Springs, Colorado, on the east, and from Baggs, Wyoming, to Abiquiu, New Mexico, from north to south. Some Ute groups ranged even farther to hunt. These 225,000 square miles contained a varied landscape which ranged from great mountain parks to arid flatlands, and from rugged canyons to high plateaus. In the north are the Central Rockies. In the south are rolling hills that level out into semiarid mesas and desert country on the west, and into flat plains on the east. To the west is the Great Salt Desert of western Utah. To the east is the grassland plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas.

The Ute people did not use the lakes and rivers for transportation, but they did use them as a major source for food?both the fish and plant life within them and the game which congregated around them. Utes located their major campsites near the waterways. They also learned to use even the desert lands. These yielded foods, offered relief from the cold, and put distances between the People and their enemies.

In the Ute land, dozens of mountains reach above 13,000 feet. The mountains were important refuges for the Utes, particularly after they acquired horses. Ute bands traveled on horseback from the mountains onto the plains where they were able to gather food. Then they quickly returned to the mountains which they knew so well, and where pursuers from other tribes were at a disadvantage.

The Utes were scattered over the land in family groups or bands. In their search for food and shelter, each band traveled over a wide but certain familiar area. Bands often were known by the land they inhabited or the foods on which they lived. The Sevier Lake Utes called themselves Pahvant, which means “close to water.” The band which resided at Utah Lake was called Tumpanawach, or “fish eaters.” The Yampa River Band was called Yamparika, or “carrot eaters.”

In some localities such as the valley of the Utah Lake and the lower Sevier River streams and forests provided abundant game and seeds. In these areas the Utes did not have to travel far to obtain foods; therefore, large encampments became established.

Each family group lived independently of others. However, the Ute people would travel far, especially after some acquired the horse, to meet together. Sometimes these meetings were because of necessity. More often they were social events with dances, amusements, and marriages, usually taking place in the summer. The most important gatherings, however, were religious in nature, such as the Bear Dance.

There was not a central political structure for the entire Ute tribe. Too many natural barriers separated the several bands. Also, there was not enough food in one area to support all the bands. But all the Utes recognized themselves to be Nuche, the People. They all shared a language, rites, traditions, lifestyles, and a beautiful land.

As in the creation legend of Sinauf, Ute ancestors probably migrated from the south, originating perhaps in the Sonora Valley of Mexico and moving north into what is now southern California. Over the next several hundred years, family groups and small bands fanned out to the north, northeast, and east throughout the Great Basin. As they separated and diverged, new tribes formed and languages changed.

The bands that continued north into what is now Utah, Colorado, and parts of Wyoming and New Mexico interacted enough to maintain a common language, although they lived as separate bands and even smaller family units. Leading a largely nomadic life, these small family groups hunted meat and gathered edible and medicinal plants, traveling with the seasons and taking advantage of the land’s rich resources. When Europeans arrived some 500 years ago, there were at least ten distinct bands of Utes in what is now Colorado and Utah, the latter state, in fact, named after the Utes.

The various bands included:

1) Moache–residing north of what is now Trinidad, Colorado, to the Denver region.

2) Capote (Kapota)–ranging east of the Continental Divide, south of the Conejos River, and east of the Rio Grande to the west side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In the mid-nineteenth century they also lived west of the divide near the Animas River.

3) Weeminuche–lived west of the Continental Divide from the Dolores River in western Colorado through the Blue Mountains, including the fringe of the mesas and plateaus in the Canyonlands of eastern Utah.

4) Uncompahgre (Tabeguache)–located in an area including the Gunnision River, the Elk Mountains, and the Uncompahgre River, with what is now Grand Junction, Colorado, as their approximate western boundary.

5) White River (Parusanuch and Yamparika)–occupied the river valleys of the White and Yampa river systems, as well as North Park and Middle Park in the mountains of northern Colorado, with territories extending westward to eastern Utah.

6) Uintah–resided from Utah Lake east through the Uinta Basin to the Tavaputs Plateau in the Green and Colorado river systems.

7) Pahvant–ranged the deserts surrounding Sevier Lake, west of the Wasatch Mountains, almost to the Nevada border, mixing somewhat with Goshutes and Paiutes in southern Utah.

8) Timanogots–lived around the southern and eastern perimeters of Utah Lake in Utah Valley in north-central Utah.

9) Sanpits, or San Pitch–were in Sanpete Valley in central Utah and the Sevier River Valley.

10) Moanumts–lived in the upper Sevier River Valley in central Utah, the Otter Creek area south of Salina, and in the Fish Lake area.

11) Sheberetch–dwelt in the region around present-day Moab. This group was far more desert oriented than were the other groups. They had very little direct relationship with the Europeans until Mormons moved into the area in the 1850s. By the 1870s, the Sheberetch had been reduced by disease and war. It seems probable that the survivors joined the Uncompahgre, Weeminuche, and Uintah bands.

Three bands shared the eastern border: the Yamparika, the Paranuche (most of whom later joined the White River Band), and the Moache, which also traded with the people of the pueblos. The Capote Band lived in south-central Colorado and north-central New Mexico. Friendly relationships with the Pueblo people were also maintained by this band. Both the Moache and the Capote Bands now occupy the Southern Ute Reservation, with headquarters at Ignacio, Colorado.

Along the present border of Utah and Colorado around the Dolores River Valley dwelt a band called Weeminuche. The members of this band are now found on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in the southwestern corner of Colorado, with Towaoc as their headquarters.

Dwelling in the high mountains of what is now central Colorado were the people known as the Taviwach or Tabeguache. Later they came to be called the Uncompahgre. They had few contacts with other tribes. In central Utah along the Sevier River and the western flank of the Pahvant Mountains was the Pahvant Band. In many of their characteristics they were like their neighbors the Kaibab Paiutes, and, like the Sheberetch, they were skilled at using desert areas. The Pahvant also used marsh life of the Sevier River, as well as Fish Lake and its mountain streams. They also farmed. An 1851 newspaper account noted: “Pah-van-te Indians reside at Corn Creek … and have there raised corn, beans, pumpkins, squashes, potatoes, etc., year after year for a period that dates farther back than their acquaintance with the whites.”2

Utah Lake was the most permanent location of any of the Ute communities. The group who dwelt there was called the Tumpanawach. Europeans called them Lagunas, or fish-eaters, and also the Timpanogos Utes. In addition to the fish from the Provo and other rivers which feed Utah Lake, the community had a great number of other resources. The Heber Valley, Uinta Basin, and San Pete Valley areas, Spanish Fork, Diamond Fork, Hobble Creek, American Fork, and Provo River canyons were close and abundant in resources. The Tumpanawach were the most powerful force in the area. This group was large because the food supply was great and relatively easy to obtain, making them a peaceful, happy people.

The San Pitch, or San Pete, Utes occupied land near the Sanpete Valley. Unlike the buffalo hunting Uinta-ats, Pahvant, and Tumpanawach, the San Pitch did not have horses. Some white observers described them as “exceedingly poor … deserving of pity,” and called them “Diggers,” which became a term of derision. Eventually the San Pitch allied themselves with the Pahvant and went to the Uintah Reservation.

There were also smaller groups of Utes, some of whom had kinship ties with other Indians. The Cumumba, or Weber, Utes living along the Weber River intermarried with the Northwestern Shoshone. The Fish Lake Utes associated with the Southern Paiutes and came to be identified as such. The Uinta-ats, later called Tavaputs, lived in the Uinta Mountains and the area along and around the Strawberry River. Pahvant, Tumpanawach, Uinta-ats, and some Cumumba and Sheberetch were gathered together at the Uintah Agency during the late 1860s and early 1870s. These groups then came to be called the Uintah Band.

Modern history began for the Utes in the early 1600s. Ute life changed dramatically when southern and eastern Ute bands acquired the horse from Europeans, who began invading the Ute lands about 1550. At first they were few in number and generally were received with kindness. But increasingly they made more impact and demands. As historian Fred Conetah wrote: “They wanted alliances, trade, and finally the land and its resources. They repaid the Utes with disease, whiskey, wanton killing, worthless items of ?civilization and broken promises.”3

The first intruders were Spaniards who traveled into the area in search of souls and gold. The first Spanish expedition to approach Ute land was led by Francisco Coronado in 1539–42 looking for the legendary cities of Cibola. Coronado probably did not meet any Utes, but they may have heard of him from their southern neighbors. In fact, with their wide trade connections, the Utes probably heard about Spaniards long before.

In 1604 an expedition sent by Juan de Onate met an Indian who told of a land and a lake of Copala, located north and west. The Spaniards later called this legendary area El Gran Teguayo. The area was probably the land of the Utes, and the Lake of Copala may have been Utah Lake.

The earliest specific reference by Spaniards to the Ute people is found in published reports of the Onate expedition in 1626. Fray Geronimo Salmeron wrote that Pueblo people told him of visits before 1598 of a group of Indians called Guaguatu or Guaputa. The friar called them Quasuatas, a form of the word “Yutas,” by which he and later Spanish writers called all Indians who spoke the Shoshonean dialect. Thus, the People came to be called the Utes.

In the early seventeenth century, Governor Luis de Rosas of Santa Fe reported the capture of eighty “Utikahs.” In 1638 the first recorded conflict occurred between the Spaniards and Utes. Spaniards captured about eighty “Utacas,” who were then forced to labor in workshops in Santa Fe. The first treaty with the Utes was made in 1670.

In 1680 the Pueblo peoples revolted and ousted the Spaniards from the area. Utes may have been involved in the fighting. Many Ute slaves and servants were freed, and Spanish horses became available in large numbers. Spaniards reconquered the Pueblo area in 1692, but they found their position more difficult. They were surrounded by hostile tribes. To protect themselves, the Spaniards began to form alliances with Indian peoples. They hoped that these alliances would create a buffer zone around their settlements.

The returning Spaniards hoped to maintain good relations with the Utes, who had been friendly to them. As enemies, Utes posed a great threat to the Spanish frontier towns. As friends, they were valuable allies against hostile tribes. But the Spaniards soon found that the once-friendly Utes were joining their neighbors to raid the settlements.

These alliances, however, were temporary, and they rarely involved more than a few bands. Warfare in the area consisted of small groups that would ride into an enemy camp to take horses, guns, and prisoners. After the raid they would retreat to their homelands. These tactics proved very effective for the Utes, who grew in strength and power throughout the century.

A group of Utes taken prisoner at Fort Meade, South Dakota, about 1906

From about the year 1650 Apache groups began encroaching on Ute and Comanche lands. In 1706 the Utes allied with the Comanche to fight these intruders. As a result, the pattern of alliances in the area shifted. By 1750 the Ute-Navajo alliance had broken up. Navajos joined the Spanish and the Apache to oppose the Ute-Comanche alliance. About 1748 the Comanche allied themselves with the French. With access to French guns, the Comanche broke with the Utes and turned against them.

In 1749 Spaniards and Utes made peace and formed a new alliance. Peace with the Utes was important. Ute attacks had forced Spaniards to abandon a number of their northern settlements, such as Abiquiu in 1747. And trade with the Utes for tanned deerskins and other animal pelts was important to the Spaniards. There was also the extensive slave trade. The Utes captured other Indians and traded them for Spanish horses. Although there were protests against this trade from about 1650, the practice only stopped after the United States conquered the territory in the Mexican War.

The Ute people were interested in allying themselves with the Spaniards for defense against the well-armed Comanche. The alliance proved valuable for both. After nearly thirty years of periodic fighting, the Ute–Spanish forces, with their Apache and Pueblo allies, defeated the Comanche. The Comanche moved south, and the Apache moved farther south and west. The Utes were left in control of the lands north of New Mexico.

By the 1770s, Spanish explorers and others had moved north even deeper into Ute territory in their ceaseless quest for gold. In 1776 the Uinta Basin Utes first encountered non-Indians when a Spanish expedition led by Franciscan friars Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante came through the area searching for a northern inland route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Monterey, California. It was led in part by Ute guides. The friars also hoped to establish Indian missions throughout the area. The journal of the expedition was the first written description of the Ute lands and people. The maps by Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco were also the first of the area.

The expedition traveled north through the Chama River Valley into south-central Colorado, and then through the La Plata Mountains to the Uncompahgre River. From there they headed into northwestern Colorado, entering the Uinta Basin a few miles south of the confluence of the Yampa and Green Rivers. Crossing the Green River, they traveled west, following Strawberry Creek to what is now Spanish Fork, and into the valley of Utah Lake. Expedition members observed that the local Utes,

…the Lagunas…live on the lake’s abundant fish…Besides this, they gather the seeds of wild plants in the bottoms and make a gruel from them, which they supplement with the game of jackrabbits, coneys, and fowl, of which there is a great abundance here. They also have bison handy not too far away…but fear of the Comanches prevents them from hunting them.

Their dwellings are some…little wattle huts of osier, out of which they have interestingly crafted baskets and other utensils for ordinary use…they wear…deerskin jacket [s] and long leggings of the same. For cold seasons they wear blankets made of jackrabbit and coney rabbit furs…They possess good features, and most of them are fully bearded…[They have an] easy-going character.4

From Utah Lake the friars proceeded south and, after experiencing some dissension and bad weather, the expedition elected to return to Santa Fe, which they did by difficult travel north of the Grand Canyon. The expedition found no great treasures or large cities; but it did find rich lands and friendly Indians.

Spanish intrusion changed the Utes. Ute children captured as slaves were placed in Spanish houses as servants. Some were later returned to their own people as adults in order to provide friendly contacts for Spaniards. Some Utes thus acquired new skills and techniques. The most important effect Spaniards had on Ute life was to introduce to them the horse. The Ute bands in southern Colorado and southeastern Utah were the first to obtain horses. The more northern Ute groups acquired them later in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some Ute bands, like the San Pitch and Sheberetch who lived on fragile desert lands, never kept horses in any numbers.

Ute groups who had access to horses and pasturelands to support them became good riders. Their hunting skill and range increased. Their lives changed. With the more efficient hunting, band organization strengthened. More people stayed together for longer periods of time. There was a new emphasis on raiding, although Utes did not develop aggressive warrior societies. With the horse and the resources it made available, the Ute people grew more powerful. They traveled far out onto the eastern and southern plains and came into greater contact and competition with the Cheyenne, Comanche, Arapaho, Pawnee, Sioux, and Apache tribes. It also made them a greater threat to the Spanish settlements to the south.

In 1778, Spaniards were prohibited from trading with the Utes. This law remained in effect until Mexican independence in 1820, but many traders ignored it. Following Dominguez and Escalante, traders entered the lands of the Tumpanawach. A principal item the People had to exchange was slaves taken from the Paiute and desert Ute people. Prior to Spanish intrusion, there was a limited system of slavery among some Ute groups. However, these slaves were mostly captives gained in raiding expeditions and were often incorporated into the tribe. Spaniards, on the other hand, used Indian slaves to work in the mines of northern Mexico and in the homes of Spanish colonists. To acquire these slaves, the Spanish developed a system with some Indian groups of trading horses, metal objects, cloth, and trinkets for slaves. When the 1813 expedition of Mauricio Arze and Lagos Garcia went to Utah Lake, Utes supposedly insisted on selling them slaves, killing their horses when the Spaniards refused.

The Ute people had been in a favorable position. Spaniards had little impact on Ute territory, and the Utes acquired new items: iron pots, metal knives, guns, and horses. With the 1820 Mexican revolt from Spain and the establishment of the nation of Mexico, the lands of the Utes were opened to the fur trade. The Utes established profitable trade relations with the fur trappers who came into Ute territory. The fur rendezvous held each summer from 1825 to 1840 were attended by Utes.

Even the 1829 opening of the Old Spanish Trail, a trade route which crossed the lands of the Kapota, Weeminuche, Tumpanawach, and Pahvant, was initially to Ute advantage. The Tumpanawach leader Wakara, or Walker, raided for horses in New Mexico and California with mountain men Thomas “Pegleg” Smith and James Beckworth. The horses were then driven along the Old Spanish Trail into Utah and sold to trappers to carry their furs back to St. Louis or Santa Fe. In one raid they drove off several thousand horses from ranches in California and were even able to steal the mounts of their pursuers. Soon after the trail was opened, the Utes were able to levy a sort of tribute on the caravans that went over the trail yearly from 1830 to about 1848. By 1837 Wakara was getting wealthy from it.

From the early 1750s, it is believed that French fur trappers and traders ventured into Ute country. American mountain men weren’t far behind, and by the 1820s and 1830s the country of the Utes was becoming quite well known. Their stories of the beautiful, rugged mountain country helped attract settlers to the West. In 1849 the discovery of gold in California brought a flood of Euro-Americans westward. Later, gold was discovered in Colorado. The resulting influx of people eventually led to the banishment of Utes from their homelands.

The 1830s was a period of prosperity for several of the Ute bands. Utes traded beaver and otter pelts and tanned hides of elk, deer, mountain sheep, and buffalo for weapons, ammunition, blankets, utensils, and trinkets. Several trading forts were established in the Uinta Basin and on Ute lands in Colorado. However, the fur trade was to prove destructive to the Indians, who became increasingly dependent on white men’s goods, including liquor. The trading posts became centers of vice and drunkenness. The land was stripped of beaver and other fur-bearing animals.

The fur trade declined in the late 1830s when eastern fashion changed. The Utes complained to the traders, not understanding that they were the victims of a complex economic system. Part of their frustration at this turn of events was expressed in their burning the trading forts in and around the Uinta Basin in 1844.

Fur traders such as Peter Skene Ogden, Jedediah Smith, and Kit Carson traveled through and reported about the Ute country. Other people were sent by the United States government to explore the region. The trappers, traders, explorers, and surveyors found the routes, established the posts, and published the reports that aided and convinced miners, farmers, and ranchers to come west. These were the people who stayed and who appropriated the land of the Utes for themselves.

In 1848 the United States took California and adjacent regions from Mexico with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican War. New relationships between the Ute people and the intruders developed as U.S. control was imposed. Without Indian consent, Ute lands were divided into territories of the United States. The policy of the United States was to supervise and “civilize” the Indians. The government established agencies in order to carry out this policy at the local level, to control Indian trade, and to restrain Indian hostilities. Agents conducted councils, negotiated treaties, and administered the funds for encouraging the Indians to farm and ranch. The agents were also supposed to protect the rights of the Indians.

At this time the reservation system was developing for handling the “Indian Problem.” It would place the Indians on islands of land, reservations, usually within the larger areas they occupied. Lands surrounding these reservations could then be controlled by private landholders or the United States.

To encourage American settlement in Ute country and elsewhere in the West, an expedition was sent to the Colorado Rockies in 1843 under Lieutenant John Charles Fremont. In 1844 Fremont traveled through Utah Ute country, leading the first official exploring and survey party sent to gather scientific information about the area. His reports encouraged hundreds of settlers to make the trip, most notably the Mormons.

In the following years, other government explorers and surveyors followed Fremont into Ute country. One, John W. Gunnison, returned to work on a survey for the proposed Pacific railroad only to meet a tragic death.

In the late 1860s and early 1870s Major John Wesley Powell entered Ute country when he explored the Green and Colorado Rivers. He later observed and studied the languages and customs of the Ute and Paiute peoples of Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and northern Arizona. The photographs of John Hillers, who accompanied Powell, are an important visual record of the People. Another photographer, William H. Jackson, accompanied F.V. Hayden on his surveys of the Rocky Mountains in the 1870s. Jackson’s photographs and Hayden’s maps did much to publicize the West, including the lands of the Utes.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormons) under the leadership of Brigham Young arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Very soon the entire valley was being settled by Mormons. They had a particular interest in Indians and a policy of converting the Indians and encouraging them to become farmers. However, they also wanted the land and resources. Indians in the way were pushed aside.

The initial arrival of the Mormons in the Salt Lake Valley did not bother the Utes too much because the valley was considered neutral territory or a buffer zone between the Utes to the south, the Goshutes to the west, and the Shoshone to the north. Indeed, the Utes perceived that the Mormon presence created an opportunity for them to trade for European goods. Many Utes considered the Utah Lake Valley, just south, to be their homeland, however. This valley provided all the natural necessities needed for survival, such as roots, seeds, berries, and a lake teeming with fish. The nearby mountains provided deer, elk, and other game. There was also plenty of lush grassland to feed their prized ponies.

When the Mormons soon expanded into Utah Lake Valley, the Utes viewed it as an invasion into their homeland and Ute-Mormon troubles began. The Mormons took Ute land as it suited them, without regard to, or any consideration of, Ute rights, typical of the attitudes of other white newcomers throughout the West that the land was theirs for the claiming. Also, in contrast to the Native American way of seeking a balance and not depleting natural resources, they cut timber excessively and over-hunted game in the mountains.

In 1849 a fort was established at present-day Provo. The site of the fort was an area which had been used by the Ute people for centuries as a major campsite. The fort lay directly in the path of several hunting trails. By 1850, Ute people had killed and stolen several cattle and horses of the fort’s occupants. On 8 February 1850, fighting erupted and a number of Utes were killed. For the next several months hostilities continued. Indians raided settlements for cattle and horses. Militias were sent against them, and many Indians were killed.

In February 1851 the Utah Territorial Indian Agency was established by Congress, and some efforts were begun to aid the Indians. However, Mormons continued to displace the Indians, to drive away the game, and replace the natural vegetation. The Mormons also acted to curtail the trade in horses, slaves, and tribute between the Ute people and the Mexicans. When the Mormons came in 1847 they almost immediately were confronted with the system. During the first winter, 1847-48, two children were brought to the Mormon fort to be sold. The Indians explained they were captured in war and would be killed if the whites did not buy them. Thereupon, one was bought; the one not purchased was killed. Other children were brought in, and the settlers usually bought them.5

With the fur trade ended and the Mexican trade curtailed, the Tumpanawach found it difficult to live from their traditional resources. Their lands were being occupied. The lakes and streams were being over-fished. Their sources of independence were disappearing. The Utes were frustrated in their attempts to adjust to the new situation and began to resist. But the Utes could not defeat the Mormons. Also, retaliation for Ute raids was intense. For example, after four Mormons were killed and their bodies mutilated by Utes, nine innocent Indians were slaughtered when they came into a Mormon camp.

Protecting their homeland, the Utes retaliated by taking cattle and horses and raiding Mormon communities. There were numerous skirmishes throughout the Ute territory, and a larger conflict erupted in 1853 known as the Walker War, named after the Ute leader Wakara. Raids and skirmishes occurred throughout much of central Utah.

In the summer of 1853 a settler killed a Ute and wounded two others. Wakara and his brother Arapeen began a series of raids on Mormon settlements. During the next ten months some twenty whites and many more Utes were killed. The war, however, was futile. Brigham Young sent out word to his followers to “fort up” and to curtail the trading of arms and ammunition to the Indians. There also was factionalism among the Utes–no alliance between bands was possible. The Utah Utes were outnumbered. In the six years since their arrival, the Mormons had become the majority.

Peace was arranged by Brigham Young and Wakara at Chicken Creek in May 1854. Wakara died on 29 January 1855, a defeated man. The “Mericats” controlled his former trading areas. The Mormons were taking over his homeland and its resources and forcing his people to depend upon their charity.

Indian affairs in Utah were complicated by the mutual hostility of Mormons and federal officials. There was constant conflict as to who should administer Indian policy. In the conflict Congress neglected Utah and ignored the Indians. The United States government took over Utah without a single Ute land title settled and without any treaty of cession negotiated.

Federal officials sent to Utah Territory began charging the Mormons with using their influence over the Indians against the interest of the government. And the Mormons were increasingly successful in their missionary efforts. However, since the basic interest of the Mormons conflicted with those of the Ute people—the Mormons wanted the land the People occupied–conflict was inevitable.

In 1854 Garland Hurt was appointed to the Utah Indian Agency. Soon after his arrival in 1855 he established three Ute Indian farms: at Corn Creek in Millard County, at Twelve Mile Creek in Sanpete County, and on the banks of the Spanish Fork River in Utah County. (Also, a farm for Goshutes was established at Deep Creek.) Hurt wanted to help improve the conditions of the Indians and to control them. He planned to develop the farms into permanent reservations, established with the consent of the Indians.

These federal farms were built upon a system of Indian farms which had been started in 1851 by Mormon leaders. There were several such farms established throughout Utah. Mormons were called to provide food for the Indians and to do missionary work among them.

After some initial success, the federal Indian farm effort was interrupted by the so-called “Utah War.” President James Buchanan sent troops to Utah to take control from the Mormons. Agent Hurt fled the territory. The next agent, Jacob Forney, was dismissed for mismanagement. A year elapsed before another agent was appointed. Inadequate funds finally forced the closing of the farms. Everything was sold at the Sanpete and Spanish Fork farms to keep the Indians from starving.

The Walker War had ended in 1854, but the situation remained unstable, and the continued influx of Mormon and other settlers to the region increased the pressures on the Indian inhabitants while making their struggle for survival increasingly difficult. During this time, the federal government was continuing its established practice of creating reservations. The land set aside for Native Americans was often far from the tribe’s homeland and was usually bleak and almost always considered useless by whites. In 1860 Brigham Young sent a survey party to the Uinta Basin to see if it could support a Mormon settlement. The party reported the country: “[was] entirely unsuitable for farming purposes…[was] one vast contiguity of waste, and measurably valueless, excepting for nomadic purposes…hunting ground for Indians.”6 The area was then suggested as a site for an Indian reservation.

In 1861, responding to Mormon pressure, President Abraham Lincoln signed an executive order establishing the original Uintah Valley Reservation in the eastern part of the territory. The reservation boundaries were simply defined as the entire valley of the Uinta River within Utah Territory. Congress ratified the order in 1864. Utah Indian Superintendent Oliver H. Irish was ordered to negotiate with the Utes to move them to the Uintah Reservation. A council of the Ute people was called at Spanish Fork Reservation on 6 June 1865. The aged leader Sowiette explained that the Ute people did not want to sell their land and go away, asking why the groups couldn’t live on the land together. Sanpitch also spoke against the treaty. However, advised by Brigham Young that these were the best terms they could get, the leaders signed.

The treaty provided that the Utes give up their lands in central Utah, including the Corn Creek, Spanish Fork, and San Pete Reservations. Only the Uintah Valley Reservation remained. They were to move into it within one year, and be paid $25,000 a year for ten years, $20,000 for the next twenty years, and $15,000 for the last thirty years. (This was payment of about 62.5 cents per acre for all land in Utah and Sanpete Counties.) However, Congress did not ratify the treaty; therefore, the government did not pay the promised annuity. Nevertheless, in succeeding years most of the Utah Ute people were removed to the Uintah Reservation.

The federal government abandoned the farms but was slow in developing the Uintah Reservation. With the wild game disappearing and the whites occupying the land, the Utes were in desperate circumstances. In 1865 a Ute leader named Black Hawk began leading a series of attacks on the settlements in Sanpete County. Black Hawk was a very capable leader and was able to recruit other Utes and even some Navajos and Paiutes. The Black Hawk War was basically an intensifying of the raids that had been conducted against the Mormon intruders since 1849.

After a smallpox epidemic and near starvation in the winter of 1864-65, Black Hawk found that some Utes were willing to join him in raids on the Mormon settlements. Great numbers of livestock and supplies were seized by the resistors. Sevier and Paiute Counties were entirely abandoned, and many settlements in other counties were temporarily left. However, the effort was in vain. The Mormons continued to increase in numbers and strength. Local civil authorities and Indian agents began moving Utes to the Uintah Reservation.

The Mormons had trouble stopping the attacks and threatened a war of extermination against the Ute people. By 1865 Utah Indian Superintendent Irish acted to convince the Utes to move to the Uintah Reservation. Mormon settlers also increased in strength. In the summer of 1867 Black Hawk appeared on the Uintah Reservation accompanied by his family. He agreed to meet with Superintendent Head. At that meeting he explained that his Indians were tired of fighting and desirous of a permanent peace. The following summer, Head held a council with several of Black Hawk’s followers. They negotiated a verbal peace treaty.

In 1870 Black Hawk traveled to various Mormon settlements asking forgiveness for the attacks. He pointed out that the raids were undertaken because his people were starving. Black Hawk died that year of tuberculosis. Some of his followers continued raiding until 1872. Many of the San Pitch Utes eventually moved to the Uintah Reservation.

The Uintah Ute Reservation

The Ute people who are now called the Uintah Utes acquired that name from the area reserved for them in Utah. Many are descended from the Uinta-ats who lived in the Uinta Basin. Others are descended from Tumpanawach, Pahvant, and San Pitch people who lived in other parts of Utah. Some are even descended from other Indian groups who intermarried with Utes. The Uinta Basin is bordered by the Uinta Mountains to the north and the Wasatch Mountains to the west. Mountain streams flowed into the Duchesne and Green Rivers. The Basin was an area of good fishing and good hunting. However, there were not large numbers of Uinta-ats living in the Basin, and most of the families living there were fairly independent groups of few residents in the limited fertile areas, such as the streams at the foot of the Uinta Range.

When the traders and trappers came into the Basin in the 1820s, mounted Uinta-ats were in the area. Antoine Robidoux’s post on the Uinta River caused unsatisfactory relations with the Indians. It offered traffic in women and in whiskey and served as an attractive spot to draw other intruders into Uinta-ats country. Robidoux himself became a hated symbol among the Utes. In 1844 the Utes burned his fort while he was away. The fort was then abandoned.

The Pahvant Utes lived in villages along the western flank of the Pahvant Mountains and along the Sevier River. The Dominguez-Escalante expedition met these people. They called them Barbones, or the “Bearded Utes.” Their physical appearance suggests they had had previous relations with Europeans.

Whites began invading territory occupied by the Pahvant people in the 1850s. A tragic incident between the intruders and the Pahvant was the Gunnison Massacre. Early in October 1853 a group of emigrants on their way to California camped southwest of Fillmore. A small group of Pahvant people, led by Moshoquop and his father, Mareer, went to the camp to trade. The emigrants panicked and opened fire on them, killing Mareer. With threats of revenge, the Pahvant left camp and moved northeast of Sevier Lake.

At the same time, Captain John Gunnison, with a small military escort, was exploring for a railroad route. On October 25, Gunnison and several companions traveled to explore Sevier Lake. They were noticed by members of Moshoquop’s group. He decided to avenge the death of his father. At dawn the next day, Moshoquop and his followers attacked and killed Gunnison and seven of his party.

Later, six Pahvants (including one woman) were turned over by Kanosh to military authorities. The Indians were put on trial. The Mormon jurors found three men guilty of manslaughter and acquitted the rest. This verdict displeased federal officials, and Colonel Edward J. Steptoe was sent with a detail of soldiers to investigate the murders.

The Pahvant leader Tintic also opposed white intrusion. In February 1856 members of Tintic’s band killed two herdsmen, stole some cattle, and moved into Cedar Valley. First a posse and then the Utah County militia were sent after Tintic, but they failed to capture him. These raids and retaliations were called the Tintic War. Tintic was killed in 1858.

The Indian farm at Corn Creek was operated by Pahvant Utes under the leadership of Kanosh. The group struggled for years to farm the area, even after it was abandoned by the federal government. Mormon settlers gave them some assistance. Superintendent F.H. Head described their efforts in 1866: “Early in the spring I procured to be plowed for those Indians…about an acre of land and furnished to them seed, grain, potatoes, and corn. They have taken the entire care of the crop, and have raised several hundred bushels of wheat, corn, and potatoes…”7

But in 1868 grasshoppers destroyed most of their crops. In 1869 they joined other Utes at the Uintah Reservation. Kanosh and his people did not always remain there. They continued to return to Corn Creek, where they attempted to survive by growing crops, gathering plants, hunting, and begging. The Mormons eventually baptized many of this group.

The San Pitch had few horses and depended on gathering wild seeds and hunting small game. They were fewer in numbers and were often the victims of the slaving expeditions of Spaniards and Tumpanawach Utes. The San Pitch Utes may have been a branch of the Pahvant. As they were disrupted by white settlers, they allied themselves with the Pahvant people.

There were other Ute groups who were absorbed into the Uintah Band. One such group was the Elk Mountain Utes, or Sheberetch. Their homeland was south of the San Rafael River and east of the Wasatch Range. Black Hawk’s raiding party was said to have included many Elk Mountain Utes. They were always described as having many horses which they knew how to ride well.

In May 1855 a group of Mormons had been sent as missionaries to the Ute people living near Elk Mountain (Moab). Several Utes were baptized. However, trouble began in September when the Indians raided the gardens planted by the missionaries and ended only after three Utes and three Mormons were killed. The mission was abandoned and Mormon settlement efforts there were delayed for some twenty years. Whoever the Elk Mountain Utes were, they had completely lost their identity by 1880 and were never referred to again as a separate group.

Many Indians were not content to remain at the Uintah Reservation. In the spring of 1872 Tabby and Kanosh led Utes off the reservation into the San Pete Valley to hunt and hold a Ghost Dance. They were joined by a group of White River Utes led by Douglas. The presence of this large group caused alarm to the settlers in Utah and San Pete Valleys. David W. Jones, a Mormon trader who had had many dealings with Indians since the 1850s, and interpreter Dimick B. Huntington convinced the Ute leaders to meet in council at Springville. The Utes expressed dissatisfaction with conditions. They complained that supplies were not available at the reservation. Tabby explained that they would as soon die fighting as starve. The federal officials sent supplies to the Uintah Agency, and the Ute leaders peacefully returned to the reservation.

Several groups moved back to their old territories in Wyoming and Colorado and attempted to survive. Some requested annuities and supplies from agencies in those areas. Others tried to continue their hunting way of life. However, by 1879 the last Ute hunting areas in Utah and Colorado were being invaded and depleted of game. The non-Indian population in Utah had grown to 145,000. Only then did the Utah Ute people begin to remain year round near their agency at Uintah. By then their numbers had decreased to about 800 from 4,500 in 1859.

Developments in Other Areas

There were also intruders on Ute lands in northern New Mexico and Colorado. In 1858 gold was discovered near what became Denver. Hordes of treasure seekers invaded central Colorado. The white population increased so rapidly that by 1861 the Territory of Colorado was organized. Hundreds of prospectors and miners moved into the area. There were several skirmishes, and the intruders began to push for relocation of all Colorado Utes on a reservation to be located on lands occupied by the Weeminuche and Kapota, with headquarters in the San Juan Mountains.

In 1865 gold, silver, and coal were discovered in western Colorado. Miners again poured onto Ute lands, followed by ranchers and farmers. Conflicts continued. Starving Utes broke into homes begging and demanding food.

Another treaty was negotiated in 1868. Federal officials dealt with the leaders of seven Ute bands. They agreed to a reservation which included one-third of the territory of Colorado–about 15 million acres. However, as with previous treaties, that of 1868 was better kept by the Utes than by the settlers and miners who continued to trespass on Ute lands. By 1870, Colorado Utes, who had been relegated to the western third of the state since the 1868 treaty, moved deeper into the high mountains, clinging to their free-roving lifestyle. Soon, however, the flood of white immigrants, prospectors, and homesteaders crimped their way of life even in the most remote mountain valleys.

In 1873 the Brunot Agreement was negotiated to deal with the gold discoveries in the San Juan Mountains. It specified that the Utes would relinquish their rights to approximately 4 million acres of mineral-rich lands in the San Juan Mountains. But even this agreement did not signal the end of conflict.

Colorado gained statehood in 1876 and its first governor was elected on a “Utes Must Go!” platform. Politics and public sentiment was at an all-time high against the Utes. The final seeds of disaster were planted in 1878 when a self-righteous eccentric named Nathan Meeker was appointed agent at White River in northwestern Colorado. Without bothering to learn the ways of the people he was supposed to assist, Meeker set about trying to turn them into farmers. He threatened the Utes that the government would take away their reservation if they did not cultivate it. He banned a favorite pastime, horse racing, had his men plow under important winter horse pastures, and even suggested the Utes shoot their fine horses. In a very short time, strife grew into open hostility.

Fearing for his safety, Meeker called for troops. When the Indians heard of this they organized and prepared to fight. Chiefs Nicaaqat, Colorow, and Jack fought the soldiers, while chiefs Johnson and Douglas led a small group against the agency in the summer of 1879, killing Meeker and his employees and capturing the women and children.

The incident swept whites into an anti-Ute frenzy that resulted in the entire White River Band being removed to the barren lands of the Uintah Reservation in Utah. With the “Meeker Massacre” as ammunition, the anti-Indian movement grew in strength. By 1881 virtually all Utes had been forced onto reservations. Several bands went to reservations in southern Colorado and New Mexico. The powerful Uncompahgres followed the White River Utes to the Uintah Reservation. In 1882 the Uncompahgre Reservation was established in Utah for the Uncompahgres. Later the two reservations were combined.

The Uncompahgre (Ouray) Reservation

The Uncompahgre Utes are named after the agency established for them in 1875 in the Uncompahgre River Valley in Colorado. They called themselves the Taviwach or Tabeguache. Their traditional homeland was the area of the north fork of the Gunnison River. Ouray was one of their prominent leaders in the mid-nineteenth century. They were gradually pushed out of their Colorado homelands.

The intruders acquired all the Uncompahgre land after the 1879 Meeker incident, although the Uncompahgre did not rebel. Ouray even sent a message “requesting and demanding” that the White River Utes cease fighting. Ouray also sent a message to the Southern Ute advising them to remain neutral. Thus the Meeker incident was not turned into a general Ute protest. Nevertheless, as a result of the uproar caused by the Meeker incident, the leaders of the Uncompahgre were forced to negotiate and sign the Agreement of 1880. They had to give up their lands in the Uncompahgre Valley and remove to lands in Utah Territory.

In June 1881 Ute Commission members were assigned to search for a site for a new reservation for the Uncompahgre. They felt that good areas in Colorado should be left for white settlement, and thus went north and west into Utah to a site in the valleys of the White, Green, and Duchesne Rivers. The commissioners also established the Ouray Agency.

As the summer of 1881 wore on, the Uncompahgre resisted efforts to move. They claimed that they had been deceived; however, the threat of army troops convinced the Utes to start to their new reservation. A horde of non-Ute settlers waited. In three days after the troops left, the rich lands of the Uncompahgre were occupied, towns were being laid out, and lots were being sold. Chief Ouray never made the trip to Utah. He died shortly after the removal order was issued, heartbroken and suffering from kidney disease.

The Uncompahgre Reservation in Utah was established by executive order in January 1882. The Uncompahgres were shocked and dismayed. The bleak land could not have been more different from the lush mountain home they were forced to give up. They had remained loyal and friendly to the United States but were dealt with as severely as if they had not. The situation on the Uncompahgre Reservation was particularly difficult. To control the Uncompahgre, a military post, Fort Thornburgh, was built in 1881. It was abandoned in 1884. The reservation was not only remote but also bleak and dry. Only the valleys of the White, Green, and Duchesne Rivers provided small relief in a huge wasteland. The turnover of agents was rapid and frequent. The problem of the boundary line strained relations between whites and Utes.

Fort Duchesne was established about midway between the Uintah and Ouray agencies to “discipline and control” the Utes. The Indian Office in 1886 consolidated the two Utah Ute agencies. Ouray was made a sub agency, and the Uintah and Ouray Agency was established at Whiterocks.

From 1882 to 1933 the Uintah, White River, and Uncompahgre Utes were forced to cope with new rules, new systems of survival, and new relationships. Often the relationship between the Utes and the surrounding non-Ute communities was one of racism, jealousy, misunderstanding, and exploitation. And the relationship between them and their agency supervisors was usually one of resentment.

The relationships among the three Ute groups also were often strained. This was partly because of differences in their own tradition and history but also because of federal policies. For many years the federal government treated the groups differently in terms of land and money yet forced them to coexist on an ever-shrinking land base.

Life on the reservations was difficult for the Utes. They felt caged in and alienated. Many continued to hunt in Colorado as they had always done, and their travels off the reservations angered the surrounding settlers. There were several altercations between the People and the agency personnel who controlled their lives. Despite efforts by the personnel to turn the Utes into farmers, most were not interested. Efforts to turn them into cattle ranchers failed for the most part also. The three groups all owned large herds of horses. These were the animals they treasured.

Reservation Life

The United States government policy of Indian relations was based on treating the Indian tribes as separate nations. The Indians were dealt with by the federal government, rather than the states, through diplomatic agreements. Federal officials worked out treaties and agreements whereby the citizens of the United States could secure possession of Indian lands and natural resources.

The Indian tribes agreed to give up part of their land holdings and settle in Indian country or, after 1850, on reservations. The government was to provide them with materials and training to adapt to a new lifestyle, since they could no longer range over their lands gathering, fishing, hunting, and farming. Treaties were made to “insure civilization for the Indians and peace and safety for the whites.” The government acted as trustee for the Indians and was responsible for certain obligations to them.

However, the history of Indian treaties is one of broken promises. The Indians were at a disadvantage. Treaties were written in English, and often the terms were not explained correctly to the Indians. Land ownership and government systems were concepts often foreign to Indians. And the government often negotiated with persons whom it had selected but who were not the accepted leaders of the entire tribe.

There was some outright fraud or theft by agency personnel as well as reluctance on the part of the federal government and its agents to fulfill the obligations of a treaty. Indian people were often not supplied with food, clothing, and utensils to replace the game and plants which were being destroyed. Indian lands were often not protected from trespass. So it was with the Utes.

However, important rights were guaranteed to the Ute people by treaties, agreements, executive orders, and legislation. These federal statutes have been the basis of claims the Utes have made against the government. Congress does have the power to change or repeal treaties and statutes; however, many rights secured to the People by treaty, agreement, and other statutes continue to be enforceable today.

The government followed a policy of bringing Indians to Washington, D.C., to impress upon them the strength of the Euro-Americans and to convince the Indians of the futility of resistance. Ute leaders were among the hundreds of delegations. The government used these trips to overwhelm them. This, coupled with their trust in the president, encouraged the Indians to give up land and property which they might have fought to retain. The first Ute delegation to go to Washington, D.C., went in February 1863.

By 1870 the Utah Utes who had not been killed by disease, starvation, or bullets were being encouraged to move to the Uinta Basin and were being pushed into one group which would become known as the Uintah Band. They did have an advantage that the Colorado Utes did not, however, from 1871 to 1883 the agent at Uintah was an unusually capable man, John J. Critchlow. Prior to Critchlow there had been the typical rapid turnover of agents.

In his first year at the Uintah Valley Agency, Critchlow observed that his predecessors had done little to aid the Indians. “There seems never to have been anything more done for them than to keep them quiet and peaceable by partially feeding and clothing them and amusing them with trinkets,” he wrote. He noted that the people were hungry from lack of adequate food. They wanted to continue their traditional ways of life and were unhappy with the treatment given them by the government.

Critchlow immediately organized efforts to expand agricultural production on the reservation. However, efforts to get the Utes to remain throughout the year to plant and harvest a crop failed. In March 1872 the White River leader Douglas came from Colorado and persuaded the Indians at Uintah to let the white men farm for them. In May hundreds of Utes gathered in the Sanpete area. The gathering was probably to hunt but was also for a Ghost Dance. This new religion promised a supernatural solution to problems. It promised that the spirits of the dead Indians would again reside upon this earth and change it into it paradise.

The Ghost Dance did not have its intended effect. The People were not joined by their dead friends and relatives, and they did not become free of the white intruders. Utes stopped sponsoring the Ghost Dance after 1872.

Not until 1879 were most of the Utah Utes located permanently on the Uintah Reservation. Critchlow was gradually able to improve the relationship between the agency and the People. That relations were improving is demonstrated by the understanding the People showed for Critchlow’s problems. In 1876 when appropriations for Utah were so meager that annuities could not be given, Critchlow explained the situation. The Utes accepted it.

A real test came in 1879 with the Meeker incident in Colorado. Critchlow reported that the reservation Indians, with few exceptions, after the first excitement, “remained in a state of almost perfect peace and quiet.” They even suggested that Critchlow, his family, and employees leave the agency and join them in the mountains where they were going for safety.

However, despite Critchlow’s efforts, major problems continued to plague the Ute people. They were increasingly threatened with trespass on the reservation. Cattlemen allowed their herds to graze on reservation land, thereby ruining the grazing and water for the People’s stock. In 1878 Critchlow reported that the Utes were afraid that the reservation would be thrown open to white settlers and that they would be removed to some other place and thus lose all their labor. He argued about the injustice of such a plan. The fears proved to be valid. The reservation was eventually opened to non-Utes.

Within a span of twenty years, Ute life had been irreversibly changed. In 1882 the Uintah, White River, and Uncompaghre Utes found themselves in the vast semiarid country of the Uintah Reservation, far from their homelands in central Utah and Colorado. The distant mountains were a constant reminder to their minds and hearts of their ancestral homes–places now vanishing beneath the fence and plow; places that had been stripped from them by a conquering people.

Though unaware of what the future had in store for them, the Utes clearly understood what treaties meant to them: every treaty that had been made with them had been broken–the promises and reality never matched. Now three different bands were forced to live together on one reservation, each bringing their own leaders, traditions, and history. This meant that in the decades to come, the bands would face the challenge of merging into one group plus adjusting to living with new nearby communities of non-Utes. Here they would have to contend with racism, jealousy, exploitation, different rules and systems, and ever-changing federal policies.

The White River Utes received a small per-capita payment from the federal government as part of an 1880 agreement for portions of land that were taken from the band. Against White River opposition, the government withheld some of the payment to cover pensions for the families of all agency and military personnel killed in the Meeker incident. The Uncompahgres also received payment for some lands taken from them. Ironically, the Uintah, who had given up part of their land to the White Rivers, received nothing.

There were other problems for the Utes. Non-Utes continued their relentless invasion onto the Ute lands. The ranchers of Heber Valley, for example, illegally used the western area of the Uintah Reservation for grazing their stock. They finally agreed to pay a fee for pasturage; however, they worked to take the Strawberry drainage area away from the Utes.

Very little land on the reservations was arable. The lands had been left the Indians because they had been rejected by settlers. However, farmers began illegally diverting water from streams of the upper Strawberry River on the Uintah Reservation. The farmers built canals which carried water off the reservation and diverted it into Daniels Creek and thence into irrigation systems in Wasatch County. These farmers supported efforts to allot and open the reservation. Such efforts were also supported by farmers in Ashley Valley (settled by Mormons in 1878) to the east of the Uintah Reservation. By 1890 most of the good agricultural land in that area had been taken up in homesteads. Settlers began to eye the farmland controlled by the Utes.

In 1885 gilsonite and gypsum asphalt deposits were discovered on the Uintah Reservation. The miners built a road across the reservation to the Denver & Rio Grande railroad line in order to get the minerals to market. In 1888 Congress removed a triangular “Strip” of about 7,000 acres from the eastern end of the reservation in which were located several gilsonite claims. The People received about twenty dollars per acre for the land. The “Strip” became a lawless area of saloons, bordellos, and gambling houses. In 1888 gilsonite was also discovered on the Uncompahgre Reservation.

In August 1886 Major EW Benteen arrived on the reservation with black soldiers from the Ninth Calvary, who were called buffalo soldiers by the Indians on account of their curly black hair. A post was built named Fort Duchense, and the soldiers stayed for nearly twelve years. The Ute people were under constant military supervision.

When the tribes were relocated to the reservation, the law provided that they would be able to return to their former homelands to hunt during certain times of the year. However, the hunting trips to Colorado created problems with white settlers that sometimes resulted in skirmishes between the Utes and non-Indians. In the summer of 1887 a large group of Uncompahgre and White River people left the reservations for their annual hunt in their old domain in western Colorado. Colorow led this group in their effort to continue a tradition. The Agreement of 1873 had stated: “The United States shall permit the Ute Indians to hunt upon [ceded Colorado] lands so long as game lasts, and the Indians are at peace with the white people.” Much of this land remained as public domain. Whites used it for grazing their livestock. They opposed the Utes using it for hunting.

Incidents were fanned by the press and local hysteria into the “Colorow War.” The national guard was called in. The Colorado militia attacked and killed some of the Utes as they attempted to return to Utah. They also took 600 horses, 2,500 sheep and other goods belonging to the Indians. Most of this property was never returned.

At the same time, non-Indians were intruding onto the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, taking the best bottomlands for farming, diverting water, and illegally grazing their livestock. On the east side, in the Vernal area, non-Indians moved onto the agricultural land along the Green River. White farmers petitioned Congress to enact legislation in their favor that would further shrink Ute lands.

The system by which the land was taken from the Indians was allotment. One of the mechanisms used was the General Allotment (Dawes) Act of 1887. It had been written as part of the Agreement of 1880. It provided for the allotment of tribal lands to individual tribe members. The reservation land that was left over was to be declared public domain and opened to ranchers, homesteaders, and mineral speculators.

The General Allotment Act of 1887 gave each tribal member a parcel of land, then opened the reservation to non-Indians for homesteading on unallotted land. This scattered the Utes’ land base, giving the reservation the checkerboard look it has today. By dispersing Ute people onto arbitrary tracts of land, it also fractured families and tribes, causing further destruction to the culture and traditions.

The theory behind the allotment policy was to “civilize” the Indians by forcing them to become independent ranchers and farmers on separate parcels of land. The fact that various Indian groups might not be oriented towards farming and ranching was ignored. The isolation of the Indian lands and the inexperience of the Indian people made intimidation by white farmers possible.

The leaders of the Uncompahgre, White River, and Uintah Utes opposed allotment. In 1895 a commission was appointed to survey and allot the Uncompahgre lands. There was not enough arable land to provide suitable allotments to all Uncompahgre, so it was decided to take the needed additional lands from the Uintah and White River Utes. This decision caused a great furor from all the groups. However, despite continued Ute protest, in June 1897 Congress passed an act requiring allotments be made on the Uncompahgre Reservation.

The Uncompahgre Reservation was to be opened to settlement in April 1898. Federal troops were called in keep order. The protests of the People had gone unheeded. The allotments had been issued hastily, and little consideration was made of the wishes of the Indians. Most of the Uncompahgre continued to live on the reservation. They refused to believe the land did not still belong to them. Congress acted without the consent of the Uncompahgre, which resulted in their protest. When they were informed that the 1880 Agreement provided for allotments, the Indians agreed to accept them.

In 1898 an act was passed in Congress which authorized a commission to allot lands on the Uintah Reservation “by the consent of a majority of the adult male Indians” But the Utes were strongly opposed to making cession to the government of any of their lands. Congress then proceeded without their consent.

In 1902–03 Congress enacted a series of laws to break up the Uintah Reservation and allot lands to the Utes. The Ute people continued adamantly opposed to allotment and the loss of land. The congressional delegation from Utah worked hard to have the reservation opened, as did other whites, including leaders of the LDS church. The Ute people were not represented. Acts were passed, including one in 1905 opening the reservation to white homesteading.

The announcement of the opening started a land rush. But the land bubble soon burst. There was not sufficient water for much farming, and the terrain was difficult to farm. By 1912 many of the newcomers were destitute. Very little of the land was eventually claimed or entered by non-Utes. Also, the gilsonite and other mineral lands had been reserved to the United States.

After the opening to whites of the Uncompahgre and the Uintah Reservations, the Ute land came to be called the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The people who lived there were then called the Uintah-Ouray Ute Tribe. The agency was moved to Fort Duchesne in 1912 when the military left the post.

Though the Utes protested the allotments and the opening of the reservation to non-Indians, their opposition fell on deaf ears. Utah Representative George Sutherland said, “Since the Uintah Reservation was created by the President and Congress, there is no need of approval from the Utes.” This position was later supported by a 1903 Supreme Court decision in Lone Wolf vs. Hitchcock.

In protest against the allotments and land losses the Utes engaged in a final act of defiance. In the spring of 1906 an Indian by the name of Red Cap spoke to dissatisfied Ute people during a Bear Dance, saying, “The white people have robbed us of our cattle, our pony grass, and our hunting grounds …” He rallied many to journey north and join up with the Sioux. Some 300–600 Utes gathered with their wagons, supplies, and horses in the area of present Bridgeland, Utah. They left the reservation and trekked northward. Some eventually spent over two years on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation after they learned to their dismay that the Sioux did not want to join them in their defiance. The Utes were shocked to see the powerful Sioux defeated and relegated to reservations. Some Utes worked on the railroads and found jobs in Rapid City, South Dakota. The federal government withheld rations and payments from them to induce them to return to their reservation. In 1908 the Utes were escorted back to Utah.

This “anguished odyssey” reinforced the breakdown of traditional political organizations. The leaders were defeated and discouraged. Their inability to control their destiny, to make decisions for their people in the face of white power and control, was sorrowfully demonstrated. Through the 1920s the Utes maintained hostility toward agency and government personnel. During those years they were subjected to unfair laws, acts, and policies that stripped them of land, water, and resources.

In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt withdrew 1.1 million acres from the original Uintah Reservation to create the Uintah National Forest Reserve. In 1906 the federal government passed an act authorizing construction of the Uintah Indian Irrigation Project. Most Indians opposed the project, while local non-Indians supported it, especially those who had established themselves within the reservation borders. The development of the irrigation system was a huge disappointment to the Utes, because, while Ute money was spent to built it, the larger portion of the benefits went directly to the non-Indians living inside the reservation. In 1910 the Utes lost a large expanse of prime grazing land in the verdant Strawberry drainage through the “eminent domain” process. Later a very low compensation was paid for the land.

The effect of the allotment policy on the Utes was disastrous. Within fifteen years the Ute people had sold or leased 30,000 acres of the best Ute agricultural land. Much of this land was then irrigated until it became alkaline. Other land was used for stock and was overgrazed.

The Strawberry Valley Reclamation Project was authorized in 1905. A reservoir site had already been surveyed in the Strawberry Valley, and the Reclamation Service requested that the Utes sell the 56,000 acres at $1.25 an acre. The People refused. Congress then passed a law in 1910 extinguishing Indian title to that land. The land was taken and $71,000 was paid for it into the tribal fund.8

The whites became partners in the use of the Uintah Irrigation System without Ute consent. There were many problems. Water was drawn off at the heads of rivers, and dams were built. As a result, the water table dropped on lands south of the Uinta Mountains where Utes pastured their cattle. Private irrigation companies drew off water higher up along the rivers, leaving Indian lands short of water. Strict rationing had to be practiced, which caused ill feelings.

The early years of the new century were grim for the Utes. Disease and hunger were prevalent. The traditional lifestyle was deteriorating and the spirit of the people was dying. Discouraged and with little interest in farming, Utes generally gave little attention to their lands given out as allotments. Some actually sold their allotment. The population had declined from 2,825 in 1882 to 1,150 full-blooded Ute Indians by 1910.

Indian Reorganization Act of 1934

That the Indians were neglected and suffered is evident in the declining population on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation. In 1890 there were 1,854 full bloods; in 1900, 1,660; in 1920, 1,005; and, in 1930, only 917. The land base also continued to shrink. Leasing and purchasing of Indian lands continued, particularly during an alfalfa seed boom which occurred in the 1920s. By 1933,91 percent of the reservation lands of the Uintah, White River, and Uncompahgre People had been lost from their ownership. From nearly 4 million acres in 1882, the Ute people now owned only 360,000 acres.

In the 1930s the federal government made a major shift in its Indian policy, which had proven to be catastrophic to the native peoples. A Senate committee investigation into federal Indian policy resulted in the Merriam Report of 1928, which described the appalling conditions on Indian reservations, attacking the Bureau of Indian Affairs and calling for many reforms.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 was intended to undo past wrongs of the federal government. It returned to the Indians control over taxation, tribal membership, and law and order on the reservation, and assured their right to self-government. It also ended further allotment of tribal land. The act, however, stopped short of abolishing the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which maintained its role as facilitator between the Indian tribes and the federal government. This severely watered down the status of Indian tribes as sovereign nations, ostensibly one of the main goals of the act.

In 1937 the Northern Ute Tribe voted in a referendum to accept the new Indian Reorganization Act and a new government structure for the tribe. It was hoped that this would finally give the Utes the opportunity to determine their own destiny. With the acceptance of the act, all bands acquired equal rights as enrolled members of the Ute Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The tribe drew up a constitution and by-laws that continue to be the instruments used in governing the tribe today.

The Indian Reorganization Act provided for a tribal council system of government and for the organization of business corporations to manage the development of tribal resources. However, the federal government maintained ultimate control. A Uintah and Ouray Ute Tribal Business Committee was formed under the Indian Reorganization Act. Too often, however, the committee merely did what the BIA wanted.

Reorganization did not bring about as many changes as were hoped. The People still did not control their own destinies. The Indian Reorganization Act was passed during the depths of the Great Depression. The reservation was economically depressed along with the rest of the state and nation. Much of the land which was purchased by the Business Committee under the law was bought from bankrupted white farmers. Increasingly, the Utes were split into factions. Most importantly, the reorganization failed to establish a self-sufficient tribal economy.

During these years, there were problems over grazing rights. Utes grazed some of their livestock on public domain land. Not having title to the grazing lands was not a problem until the 1920s when non-Ute ranching numbers to the Uncompahgre range, especially in winter.

In 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act was passed which ended unrestricted grazing on public domain lands. Thereafter, grazing districts were established and grazing permits issued. Efforts were made to establish part of the Uncompahgre Reservation as a permanent grazing reserve for the use and benefit of the Indians. Some white stockmen supported these efforts. This way the rest of the Uncompahgre land could be declared public domain and be organized as a grazing area for white use.

By this time the Uncompahgre had about 2,800 cattle and 7,000 sheep. Federal officials supported a proposal to establish part of the Uncompahgre Reservation as an addition to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The rest of the land would then be available to non-Utes. The People were led to believe that the entire 1,800,000 acres were to be restored to the reservation. It came as a shock to many Utes that the area to be restored was one-third of that acreage.

In 1938 the BIA began administering the withdrawn Uncompahgre land. Use of the land was by permit only, with the fees going to the Indians. White ranchers deliberately grazed stock on the lands without permit. This brought lawsuits that were eventually decided in favor of the Utes. In the meantime, the Uintah and Ouray Business Committee, with BIA encouragement, purchased land from the Uncompahgre Grazing Reserve. In September 1941 the Interior Secretary restored to the tribe 217,000 acres of unsold lands. Another order gave jurisdiction to the Utes of acreage withdrawn in 1933 to the United States Grazing Service.

World War II caused additional hardships for Utes. There was some resistance to the forced registration for the draft. The Utes also were victims of a shrinking rural economy. Small farms became unprofitable. Many were abandoned or taken over by large agribusiness corporations.

In 1948 legislation was finally passed to extend the boundaries of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The Hill Creek Extension was those lands in the Uncompahgre Grazing Reserve, about one-third of the old Uncompahgre Reservation (726,000 acres).

The Indian Claims Commission was established in 1946 as part of the termination effort. Congress saw settlement of tribal claims against the United States as a necessary step to rid the government of its responsibilities for the tribes. The commission was set up to consider claims by any “tribe, band, or group of identifiable American Indians” with whom the government had not dealt fairly. Claims were filed by Ute people, among many others. In 1958 claims for land taken for the Uintah Forest Reserve, the Strawberry Valley Reclamation Project, and mineral claims were settled. Other awards were made in 1961 and 1981. Settlements have been for more than $33 million.


In the twentieth century the Ute people have gained some money in claims and other payments, as the government finally agreed to fulfill promises it had made in treaties and agreements. Yet there were also periods of poverty. Unemployment was usually high; many remained in debt. The awards, the use of the money, and the efforts to become economically self-sufficient created problems. Factions among Utes strengthened. Traditional culture declined, and the surrounding non-Ute community often took advantage of Ute consumers.

In the 1950s the Utes were awarded $19 million by Congress in federal claims cases. The money was to be given in several payments, the initial payment being $1,000 per person. Tied to this victory for the Utes was a new federal plan that called for terminating the relationship between the federal government and Indian nations. This “termination” policy was intended to pay off Indian claims for lands lost in the treaties of the 1800s and then end all future obligation to Indian people by the government.

To prepare the Ute Tribe for termination, the government initiated a “Thirteen Year Program” designed to educate and offer plans for economic and social development. Over the next several years, 494 Northern Utes, 27 percent of the tribe, were terminated. According to one account, these were largely descendants of four non-Ute Indian women who were married to white men. These women had been adopted into the Ute tribe many years before but had adopted more of the non-Indian lifestyle than traditional Ute ways. Their children had eventually married whites as well. Others say that the termination originally resulted from a few mixed-blood family heads who wanted money in exchange for their tribal membership.

The next seven years were spent separating tribal assets between the terminated and non-terminated Utes. The terminated group formed its own corporation to manage its property, which was to remain in trust until 1964. In 1961, out of desperation for money but without an understanding of corporate finances, some of the terminated Utes began selling their stock to non-Indians. Shares which had a $1,500 value sold for as low as $30.93. (Later the federal court ruled that since the trust period had not yet expired, the stock sold still retained its full face value.) Terminated Indians throughout the United States faced similar situations and many lost valuable land and resources. By 1961 the federal government realized that the termination policy was very culturally, economically, and socially destructive for the Indians and ended the devastating policy.

Termination of the mixed bloods within the tribe did not end controversy. After the 1960s, a group of Ute people known as the “True Utes” urged that the business committee and tribal government be disbanded. They felt that it was not enough to remove the mixed Utes, government interference also must end and tribal funds not be spent on BIA-sponsored projects. The True Utes were not successful in dismantling the tribal government, but they continued to agitate for change.

The aims of the True Utes were shared by many other Utes who hoped to regain land and resources, to become economically and politically independent, and to hold on to traditional Ute values. Many have used education, technology, and government systems to rebuild their culture and society. Since the termination era, many Utes have managed to hold onto their traditional lifestyle; however, most of the economic development programs conceived during the era have failed. Further, according to many, the tribal government structure set up by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 is no longer adequate or effective in dealing with the complicated issues facing the tribe today. Many Utes feel that the tribal governmental system is in dire need of major revision in order to keep pace with the changing world.


The Northern Ute Tribe presently has a large number of younger members, one of the tribe’s greatest resources. From this group will emerge future leaders, planners, and professional people. Therefore, education will play a major role in the development process for these young people, as it has in the past. The difference is that today they must be prepared for a fiercely competitive, industrialized world, whereas in centuries past they needed to learn the skills of basic survival.

In the old Indian way of life, a child had to be properly taught survival skills. It was important to know the natural world extremely well. From an early age, children were taught the uses of many plants and what type of wood was best for wickiups, tipi poles, cooking fires, or weapons. Elders taught the young the positions of the stars in the ever-changing seasons and the myths that were the basis for their beliefs. They talked of seasonal weather patterns, lightning, thunder, and their meanings. They taught children in detail about the habits of animals, when was the right time to hunt various animals, and how to utilize every part of the kill. Youngsters learned how to harvest plants for their edible, medicinal, and spiritual properties.

Children also learned daily rituals and practices, such as how to ready oneself for each new day, rising before the sun and praying. They learned that all elements have spirit and must be treated with respect, as one would treat a person. Everything around them–the earth and the natural world–was considered related to the Utes, and children learned to revere the world.

Before the coming of the whites, the Utes were an outdoor people, and though the lessons were different, there was an immense amount of knowledge to be passed down to children. None of it was written down, of course, which made the method of learning strictly experiential.

Through the years, the Utes have been forced to adapt a lifestyle unlike the outdoor life they once led. With it, they also have had to adapt to the white man’s educational process, a process which still determines eventual survival, yet in a different context and setting. While many Utes accept these changes to their historic lifestyle, many choose to maintain their traditions. For them, the difficulty lies in preserving the old and not becoming totally assimilated by the new. This requires both having an understanding of and maintaining a delicate balance between two distinct cultures and worlds. It is understandable that many Utes would want to hold on to their old ways, as the white man’s education promised to them has only recently shown any benefit.

A few off-reservation industrial schools had been successfully established and attended by Utes, such as the famous Carlisle Indian Industrial School begun in 1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The success of such schools was measured in how much Indian culture was erased from the minds and hearts of the young students. Carlisle School founder Richard Henry Pratt proclaimed in a letter to Senator Henry L. Dawes, “The end to be gained is complete civilization of the Indian … (and) the sooner all tribal relations are broken up, the sooner the Indian loses all his Indian ways, even his language, the better it will be.” The Carlisle educator set the standard for attempting to transform not only material culture–hairstyle, dress, ornamentation–but also cultural attitudes and values.

On the Uintah Reservation, the first school was opened in October 1874 by dedicated agent John J. Critchlow. His wife taught the twenty-five or so Ute children who attended. The school closed down in April 1876 because the government did not send promised funds for room and board for the students, forcing the children to travel great distances even in severe winter weather.

The school opened again in 1877 with a new teacher but closed just eight months later when the teacher resigned. It opened briefly again in 1881 with a new building, a contract with the Presbyterian church, and just twelve students.

On the Ouray Reservation, the agent built a frame schoolhouse and hired a teacher in 1883. However, that attempt also failed miserably. The fault could be found on both sides: with whites not understanding the people they were trying to teach, and with Utes not interested in taking on the ways of a people they didn’t trust or respect. Adding to the problem, in 1885 Uintah and White River women joined together to openly oppose the education of their children in white boarding schools because of health concerns for the children.

Nevertheless, whites built a new boarding school in Leland (later Randlett) in 1892. That same year, they added a new building to the school at the Uintah Agency in White Rocks. Attendance remained sporadic and sparse at both schools. With the opening of the Uncompahgre Reservation in 1898 Ouray students transferred to the Uintah school. Tragically, in 1901, a measles epidemic killed seventeen of the sixty-five students. After 1910, conditions at the school improved, the student body grew and attendance became more consistent.

Will Carson Ryan was among those responsible for the legislation that simplified the process by which schools were paid by the federal government for their Indian students. The Johnson O’Malley Act of 1934 enabled the state, rather than the individual school districts, to sign contracts with the Education Division of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Al-though this improved the funding procedure, the state school systems often used the money for general programs. As a result, from 1940 through the early 1970s, public schools failed to develop special programs for Indian students. With the closing of the Uintah Boarding School on June 30, 1952, all schools on the reservation were administered by the public school system.

Today there are public elementary, junior high, and high schools located within Uintah and Duchesne Counties that serve both Utes and non-Indians. In addition, there are university and college extension centers located within traveling distances. While most Indian children attend the local public schools, some go to boarding school off the reservation. Young Indian adults attend the local extension centers or study off the reservation.

Cultural differences and an inflexible school system continue to hamper the education of Ute children. Curriculum is insensitive of Ute culture, and inaccurate reporting of Indian history is too common. Indian students attending local public schools often find themselves facing harassment and racial discord. Communication between teachers and Indian students also can be a major problem. Indian children attending boarding schools usually fare better; unfortunately, however, the high school dropout rate is very high among Indian students despite a concentrated effort on the part of the tribe to combat it.

Tribal members are keenly aware of their children’s educational needs, and there is growing support for various educational programs through the Northern Ute Tribal Education Department. This department offers adult education classes, works with the local school district to identify problems with individual students, and supplies counselors and tutors when necessary. It also helps Ute families research, apply to, enroll, and transport students to boarding schools off the reservation. The Education Department also encourages parental involvement in the educational process, from attending Parent Teacher Association meetings to calling for conferences with school officials to attain better understanding and harmony within the school setting.

The public school system provides a basic program to help Indian children, and social assimilation through the education process is almost complete. Still, with the heightened Indian awareness of their heritage and renewal of tribal cultures over the past two decades, many children are finding that their most effective education comes from the teachings of their elders as well as from books at school.


At the turn of the century the federal government suppressed the practice of Indian religions. Christianity was to be used to assimilate Indian people and to replace the “heathen” practices of the natives. Many tribes accepted Christianity, but many Indians eventually realized that there were negative and positive aspects to this. Often the Christian religion was used by unscrupulous people to manipulate Indians for personal gain. Religious groups such as the Episcopal, Baptist, and Catholic churches that were more receptive to the Indian way of life and religion were generally received more favorably. Today, many Utes combine Christianity and traditional beliefs, practicing both to varying degrees.

Traditionally, the Utes believe that each person is connected to the spirit of all living things. This connection makes humans responsible to the earth and all of its creations. Hundreds of years ago, tribes were basically separated not by tribal names but by the language they spoke. At times, neighboring tribes exchanged rituals and ceremonies. Thus tribal traditions and cultures were products to some extent of local geography. Historically, there is no one religion or ritual belonging to the Ute Tribe. The rituals practiced by elders in centuries past varied in many ways.

One common ingredient in many ceremonies was stones laid upon the ground in a circle. Past ritual sites with stone circles can be found throughout original Ute homelands. These stone circles are individual ritual sites and are still considered sacred today. They were not used in a uniform, structured manner. Each medicine man or spiritual person who practiced shamanism had his own ritual. Generally, the circles were used for rituals benefiting the immediate family or band.

Rituals were conducted in relationship with nature and the universe–connecting all with the supreme intelligence or creator. The stones may have been used by the shaman for contacting the spirit within, to draw a particular animal spirit to the ritual, as a boundary to keep out evil spirits, or perhaps as a marker of the site.

Animals and birds have always played a large part in ceremonies of Ute medicine people. Shamans used various animal or bird powers in the form of skins and feathers for their healing rituals. Eagle feathers were and remain very sacred. Other animals and birds had their own gifts for humans, and some ceremonies were dedicated to these animals.

Bear Dance. One of the oldest traditional ceremonies belonging to Utes is the Bear Dance. Though its origin is unknown, it was probably a ritual shared by other tribes. The Bear Dance involved the entire community. It celebrated the coming of spring, with the bear coming out of hibernation; the awakening of spirits; winter returning to its home in the north; and the return of summer from the south, both summer and winter being guardians of the world.

Today, the Utes celebrate the Bear Dance in a simple form, using it as a social gathering for families, bands, and tribes. It is a good opportunity for the bands to mix and tribe members to renew bonds. Each major community of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation sponsors Bear Dances at various times during the spring.

Sun Dance. Another ceremony that has survived over the years is the mid-summer fasting ceremony–Tah-gu-wau-ne, meaning “standing in thirst”–also known as the Sun Dance. Though the ceremony is for men only (considered the head of the family in Ute tradition), the entire family participates. The Sun Dance today brings together those with varying degrees of traditional beliefs, and it remains a test of a man’s spiritual and physical endurance. For three or four days and nights, participants fast and take no water. They dance all day long under the scorching summer sun and sleep on the dance ground. Drummers beat the drums and family and friends stay near to offer emotional support. The dance is used to make an adjustment in spiritual balance, to renew or replenish spiritual powers. Men may dance for spiritual cleansing or health purposes or for someone else who is in bad health, for spirits, or for relatives who have moved to the spirit world. Through their dreams, participants know when they can enter the Sun Dance lodge.

The original Sun Dance of the Utes was obtained from the Eastern Shoshones of the Wind River Reservation in 1890 by a Ute medicine man named Grant Bullethead. Decades before that, the Shoshone had acquired their style of Sun Dance from the Comanche, who in turn received it from the Kiowas. (Another version is that it was acquired from the Lakota, formerly known as the Sioux.) Thus, the Northern Ute Sun Dance is an example of how rituals and ceremonies were regularly exchanged between tribes in the days before European conquest.

Ghost Dance. Another important ceremony passed between tribes was the Ghost Dance, a movement that swept up many western tribes for a short time in the 1 890s. It was the Indians’ last desperate attempt to save their culture. The Ghost Dance was a highly sacred ceremony performed to prepare the people for the return of the buffalo and the old ways of Indian life, and the return of whites to their former countries.

On the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Ghost Dances were most often held near White Rocks. Participants wore Ghost Shirts thought to be able to protect them from harm, even from bullets. As the Ghost Dance movement swelled among the tribes, whites grew afraid that Ghost Dancing would lead to insurrection by the Indians. Troops were called to the Sioux reservation in December 1890. There, at Wounded Knee, 300 unarmed men, women, and children of the Lakota Tribe were massacred by the U.S. Army. Shortly thereafter belief in the Ghost Dance understandably diminished.

Sweat Ceremonies. Throughout their history, Utes have used sweat ceremonies for various purposes: for healing, cleansing of the spirit, and guidance of the spirit. The sweat house is a small dome-shaped structure measuring about twelve feet in diameter and four feet high at the center. Its door always faces east. Like all Ute ceremonies, it varies according to the belief and teachings of the person who conducts it. It may be simple or very elaborate.

In virtually all sweat ceremonies, the dark, steamy-hot dome represents the womb of Mother Earth. The ritual involves bringing red-hot rocks into the sweat house, pouring water over them, praying, and singing. Once cleansed through the ceremony, participants emerge reborn into the world.

Native American Church. The Native American Church (NAC) conducts another ceremony practiced by many tribal members. The Native American Church is organized with a charter, by-laws, and officers. It is structured to meet certain standards and requirements of federal, state, and tribal laws because of its ritual use of peyote. The NAC ritual has the same basis as other ceremonies–that is, tribal traditions, culture, ceremonial ethics, and values. The ceremony takes place in a tipi, lasts all night, and includes prayer and song. The rituals provide spiritual and healing relationships with the supreme intelligence (Great Spirit). Like other ceremonies among the Utes, the entire universe becomes a living altar.

Different tribes and reservations throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico have NAC organizations, all of which are structured in a similar manner. The Native American Church of North America is the largest NAC organization, however, it is not recognized on the Uintah Ouray Reservation. Instead, there is a tribal NAC organization on the reservation.

Today, ceremonies and rituals continue to play an important role in the Utes’ daily lives. Certain Utes still practice individual blessings in their home. Others collect herbs and edible plants from the mountains and river banks. Collecting herbs is done with prayers, and ritual offerings are left where the herb is collected. All is done in reverence because the mountains and rivers are considered sacred.

Ceremonies practiced today help maintain the Ute culture and the people’s connection to the natural and spirit world, a connection essential to their well-being.

Utes Today

From the establishment of the Uintah Reservation almost 140 years ago, the Northern Ute Tribe has made tremendous advancements into a lifestyle and culture completely different from that of their forefathers. Presently, the Uintah and Ouray Reservation covers more than one million acres in northern Utah. Enrolled member population is approximately 3,500. Three recognized bands reside on the reservation–the Uintah, Uncompahgre, and White River. Today, tribe members are centered in three major communities–White Rocks, Fort Duchesne, and Randlett–with a few scattered families in Ouray, Myton, Neola, Indian Bench, and the towns of Roosevelt and Vernal.

The daily routine of a Ute family may closely parallel that of any non-Indian household. Generally, English is spoken; homes are furnished with modern conveniences. Gone is the intimate language spoken just between women of the tribe; instead, mothers push their babies in strollers and send their children off to public schools. Families eat out at their favorite fast-food restaurant and enjoy movies on their VCRs. But for all the appearances and trappings of average American life, many Utes are still experiencing the culture shock of a conquered people.

Even though the Ute Tribe is one of the major economic contributors to the Uinta Basin and the state, the tribe experiences the lingering problems associated with having been proclaimed sovereign yet not being treated as such by county, state, and federal entities. This creates disputes between the tribe and these bodies of government over issues such as jurisdiction, double taxation, rights-of-way, and water rights. Such conflicts often wind up in lengthy and costly court entanglements.

In the past, federal treaties and policies determined the major decisions for the tribe, even though the results did not necessarily benefit the Ute people. In the 1930s, the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), through its by-laws, created a governing body comprised of Utes and was a first step toward self-rule. But it gave the Utes a new structure of government that did not exactly fit with the history or temperament of the people. The IRA was designed to give back to the tribe its traditional beliefs and culture; however, it was, and still is, up to the Utes to refine the governmental structure and create a place for those traditions so that they may again serve as a spiritual common ground and be incorporated into the daily decisions and affairs of the tribe.

The other goal of the IRA was to give tribes complete economic independence; and that too has had its limitations. Even though the tribe functions as a sovereign entity according to the governing by-laws, the U.S. Secretary of Interior has final approval over many tribal actions. This often hinders the tribe’s efforts to create economic programs. Thus, there remains a high unemployment rate among tribal members.

Still, many Indians believe that the tribe has full capability for complete economic independence if it were recognized in the true sense as being sovereign–that is, if the state and federal government viewed and interacted with the tribe in the same manner in which they treat other sovereign nations.

Presently each band has two representatives in the six-member governing body (tribal council). Council members are elected by the voting members of the tribe and serve a four-year term. Alternating elections take place every two years for one council member of each band.

By 1953, female members of the tribe began taking a more active role in politics. Today women serve on the council and also serve as committee chairpersons. In addition to being positive role models for youth, they are important contributors toward the betterment of the Ute Tribe.

The council oversees the administration of the tribe, the court system, and tribal enterprises such as the tribal cattle herd and domestic water system. An executive director oversees the administration of the accounting department, social services, resources, maintenance, education, drug and alcohol programs, and a special department devoted to the care of senior citizens.

The tribe operates on a yearly budget of some $8 to $10 million. There are also available other national programs such as Head Start which are subsidized by government funds. Every year the general membership has the opportunity to review the proposed budget for the coming year, as well as past and present activities of the administration.

In the past, national politics and economic trends have determined what is good for the Utes. Now, a different approach is needed, based upon the needs and desires of the Ute people, as determined by the Utes themselves. With recognition and treatment from the outside world as a sovereign nation, with a strong tribal government structure founded in traditional culture, the Ute Tribe can move forward, united and free to determine its own destiny.

1 Some of this history is based on information in Fred A. Conetah, A History of the Northern Ute People (N.p.: Uintah-Ouray Ute Tribe, 1982).
2 Deseret News, December 13, 1851.
3 Conetah, A History of the Northern Ute People, 27.
4 Dominguez-Escalante Journal,60.
5 Hubert H. Bancroft, History of Utah, 278.
6 Deseret News, October 25, 1861.
7 Commissioner of Indian Affairs Annual Report, 1866, 144.
8 Kathryn L. MacKay, “The Strawberry Valley Reclamation Project and the Opening of the Uintah Indian Reservation,” Utah Historical Quarterly 50 (1982).

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