Indians At Home

When I moved to our Western Colorado ranch in 1974, the Ute Indians, who’’d once made the surrounding area their home, had long ago disappeared after the Army forcibly removed the tribe to Utah in 1881. They vanished as much from our memory as they had from our presence. The Ute’s former sixteen-million acre reservation soon filled with settlers, —farmers, hunters, miners, and ranchers. If you ask any of the descendants of these late-19th century newcomers about the region’’s history, most will say it began in the 1870s with the miners. No thought is given to the Ute who made their home here for at least twelve centuries, nor mention made of the thousands of Spaniards who settled in southern Colorado, nor the missionaries who traveled through these parts in the 18th and 19th century.

There were two or three old-time ranchers I met when I first arrived in the Uncompahgre Valley who remembered playing with Ute children, the sons and daughters of those Ute who’’d slipped back to their former home. One old-timer related that he learned from his playmates all the best game trails for hunting and which grass parks in the mountains and river valleys attracted elk and deer, at what time of year. Another pioneer, a rancher’’s wife, remembered hosting a gathering of three tattooed Ute braves dressed in buckskins, who’’d arrive at her kitchen door at exactly the same time every day. She’’d motion for them to enter and they’’d head for the kitchen table where she served them each a cup of sugared coffee. The unarmed braves would say not a word to each other or to their hostess. After their cups had been licked clean, the three braves would stand up, nod their thanks, and disappear out the door and into the forest. “Heck, I had to organize my entire day around their morning coffee klatch,”” the hostess later told me. “They never missed a day, except Christmas.””

In 2014, it’’s difficult to find reminders of the Ute presence except, of course, at local tourist attractions and entertainment venues. At one site, tourists can attend an “historical” drama where the “savages” attack peace-loving homesteaders.” The county’’s curio shops sell truckloads of Indian jewelry, war bonnets, and rubber tomahawks–most of them made in China. Real estate developments also use Ute history in their sale pitches. “”Come live in the serenity and natural beauty of Indian Hills where the Ute made their home.”” “And, there is hardly a tourist who doesn’’t stop along the highway to photograph the painted teepees on Ralph Lauren’’s ranch. Like most Americans, we seem unable to decide if Indians were bloodthirsty savages or peaceful, tree-hugging children of nature. The few Indian attacks on whites were always referred to as “massacres,” while white attacks on Indians were usually described as “victories to advance civilization.” The artifacts left behind by the Ute suggest they were neither entirely peaceful nor a romantic invention of pulp-fiction writers. Instead, a close reading of their history portrays a peaceful tribe of hunters and gatherers, who withdrew into the Colorado Rockies in order to protect their hunting grounds from other Indian tribes, and those who were forced to move west under the banner of “Manifest Destiny.”

In my first thirty years on our ranch, I’d found only one artifact suggesting a Ute presence:a single tepee ring. Then one day I had a phone call from the County Sheriff, Art Doherty, informing me that some of my cattle were out on the state highway. I’d known the sheriff since the day we moved onto our ranch when Doherty appeared and introduced himself. Heavy-set with his cartridge belt and holstered pistol slung beneath his considerable paunch and his hat pushed back into his thinning red hair, Art seemed to have come to the county directly from central casting. ““Name’’s Doherty, just call me Art,”” he said as he extended his hand, the size of a hubcap. ““Here’’s my card, call if you need help and remember, all you need to know to be a good citizen around here are three things: stop at all ‘Stop’ signs, signal when you turn, and if you kill game out of season, be sure you eat’’em.””

Slow to move my cows, Art phoned again, his voice not quite as friendly as his first call. I saddled up a horse, rode the fence along the highway looking for the break, and then went to gather the cows and push them through the nearest gate. Unfortunately for me, the broken fence was high up on a hill above my office. I collected some wire, two steel fence posts, fence pliers, a wire stretcher, and a canvas water bag, and trudged up the hill to the break. In the heat of day, I repaired the fence. Then I sat in the shade of a piñon tree and drank some tepid water. I looked down to the dirt around me and saw some small chips of dark brown chert, a stone not native to our immediate area. After rearranging more dirt, I discovered three imperfect arrowheads and more chips.

It didn’’t take long to understand that I was looking at Ute weaponry. I sat on a hill overlooking a lush grass valley bisected by a creek. Clearly the weapon-maker used this hilltop as a spotting site for game while manufacturing his weapons. On further inspection, I discovered two of his stone tools. I assumed he must have departed this hillside quickly if he left behind these valuable objects. There was no evidence of fire. Maybe there ha’d been a sudden attack by the US Cavalry or white settlers or other Indians, though no tribe is known to have come into this area and displaced the Ute.

The question of why this Indian departed abruptly, and where he’’d escaped to, continued to occupy my curiosity. In such a perfect setting with water and ample game— I guessed he didn’’t leave this area voluntarily.

My curiosity led me to the Denver Public Library, a year of research, and finally some brutal and unpleasant answers (included in my book: Red, White, and Army Blue). Like all Indians, the Ute were gathered up and placed into outdoor holding pens–Washington designated them as “reservations.” White settlers, however, looked with envy upon the Ute’’s sixteen million acres, a potential for farm and ranch land, gold and silver mines, and timber. By negating three treaties and in retaliation for the “Meeker Massacre”, an attempt by the Ute to replace a contemptuous agent, the US government reclaimed all but one million acres. Manifest Destiny had once again, won the day, as it had over other Indian tribes.

© 2017 Western Slope Press