History: The Northern Utes

bear danceUte tradition suggests that the Ute people were brought here from the south in a magic sack carried by Sinauf, a god who was half wolf and half man. Anthropologists argue that the Utes began using the northern Colorado Plateau between one and two thousand years ago. Historically, the Ute people lived in several family groups, or bands, and inhabited 225,000 square miles covering most of Utah, western Colorado, southern Wyoming, and northern Arizona and New Mexico. Each of these bands was independent, but the Ute people were bound by a common language, close trade relationships, intermarriage, temporary military alliances, and important social and religious events. The major event for the Utes was, and still is, the Bear Dance, an annual gathering to celebrate the coming of spring. The Ute people ranged over a wide but well-known area to engage in a sophisticated gathering and hunting economy. They gathered seeds, berries, and roots, and hunted deer, rabbits, birds, and fish. Long before white settlers arrived in Utah, many of the Utes raised corn, beans, pumpkins, squashes, and potatoes.

The introduction of the horse in the 1600s brought major changes to the Ute way of life, although some Ute bands used the horse more than others. The horse allowed the Utes to travel farther and more quickly, and the Utes began to adopt many aspects of Plains Indian culture, living in mobile tipis and hunting buffalo, elk, and deer over long distances. They developed trade relationships with the Spanish and tribes that were once out of reach and earned a reputation as fierce warriors and raiders and expert horseman. Contact with the Spanish also introduced the violent slave trade. Ute children were captured as slaves, and the Utes captured members of other tribes, such as the Paiutes, and exchanged them with the Spanish for horses, guns, and other goods. As a result of the slave trade, violence between the Utes, Paiutes, and Navajos became frequent, particularly after the 1829 opening of the Old Spanish Trail, a trade route that connected New Mexico to the Pacific Ocean and traversed Ute lands.

Further disruption to Ute life came with the arrival of the Mormons in the Salt Lake Valley. Although the valley was an area of joint occupancy between the Utes and Shoshones, the Mormons expanded quickly into Ute territory, and competition for resources resulted in conflict. Led by Wakara and his brother Arapeen, the Utes retaliated against encroaching Mormon settlers with a series of raids. The so-called Walker War (1853–54) resulted in some Mormon and many more Ute casualties and began the process of Ute displacement. Brigham Young outlined his policy toward the Indians by saying “it is cheaper to feed them than to fight them,” but because the Mormons desired Ute land, fighting was perhaps inevitable.

Between 1855 and 1860, local Indian agents undertook an initiative to create organized Indian farms, but the traditionally nomadic Utes resisted settling on the farms, which soon collapsed. In 1861, at the request of the Mormons, Abraham Lincoln established the Uintah Valley Reservation by executive order. Congress confirmed this order in 1864, but, at least initially, the government made few efforts to force the Utes onto the reservation.

The Utes still hunted and gathered over large portions of land, but game became increasingly scarce and whites began to occupy the Uintah Reservation. After suffering a smallpox epidemic and famine in the winter of 1864–65, Ute leader Black Hawk intensified the raiding of nearby Mormon settlements, seizing livestock and supplies. Black Hawk agreed to peace in 1868, although some of his followers continued the raids until 1872. That year federal officials began to send supplies to the Uintah Agency, and many Utes peacefully gathered on the reservation.

Some Northern Ute bands continued to resist reservation life, but their efforts eventually proved futile. In 1881 the federal government forcibly removed the Yamparka and Parianuc (White River) Utes from Colorado to the Uintah Reservation. In 1882 the federal government established the Uncompahgre (later renamed Ouray) Reservation adjacent to the Uintah Reservation and moved the peaceful Taviwac (Uncompahgre) Utes to this remote, dry area. The two reservations were consolidated in 1886.

The General Allotment (Dawes) Act of 1887, which gave tribal members individual parcels of land and opened the rest of the reservation to white homesteaders, decreased Ute lands significantly; between 1882 and 1933, the Uintah and Ouray reservation lands decreased by over ninety percent. Allotment scattered the Utes’ land base and made the traditional lifestyle of hunting and trading over long distances impossible. The Utes were expected to farm, but this proved disastrous due to cultural resistance and competition from better-equipped and more-experienced white neighbors. Accordingly, the Utes turned raising sheep, cattle, and horses, which also proved challenging because of limited grazing lands. In 1906, as an act of protest and defiance to land loss and bad government administration, a group of between four hundred and six hundred Utes left their reservation and trekked to South Dakota, hoping that the Sioux would join them in their defiance. The Sioux refused, and after two years of little rations or support, the federal government escorted the Utes back to their reservation.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 facilitated major changes by allowing the Utes to organize their own tribal government. In 1938, the Utes filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government claiming of forty million dollars in losses from the dispossession of their land. In the 1950s the Utes from all areas won a series of legal battles and settled for $32 million in reparations.

Today the Northern Utes also operate several businesses, including a supermarket, gas stations, a bowling alley, a tribal feedlot, Uinta River Technologies, Water Systems, and a new energy company called Ute Energy. Cattleraising and mining of oil and natural gas are vitally important to the reservation economy. While the Northern Ute Tribe is becoming a more powerful force in local and state politics, they continually strive to maintain their language and culture while also developing the economy and education of the tribal members.