Chief Buckskin Charley (1840–1936), whose Ute name was Sapiah, was the preeminent chief of the Mouache band of the Southern Ute Tribe beginning around 1870. He was born to a Mouache father and an Apache mother, perhaps in the vicinity of Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico. The name Buckskin Charley may have been given to him by some Buffalo Soldiers who saw him tanning hides. Later in life he was also referred to as Charles Buck. He married Te-Wee, also known as To-Wee (Emma Naylor Buck). They had two sons: Julian and Antonio Buck.
Throughout his long tenure as chief of the Southern Ute Tribe, Buckskin Charley traveled to Washington, DC, numerous times, meeting seven US presidents. He was presented the Rutherford Hayes Peace Medal by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890. Buckskin Charley and five other Native Sovereign leaders were in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. In 1905, Buckskin Charley and his youngest son, Antonio Buck, traveled to Washington to meet with President Roosevelt.
Rise to Chiefdom
On August 24, 1880, Chief Ouray, long recognized as head chief of the Ute tribe, died of Bright’s Disease. Buckskin Charley succeeded Ouray as leader of the Mouache band and Severo for the Caputa band. Like Ouray, who was disheartened after his people were removed to a reservation in Utah following the Meeker Massacre in 1879, Buckskin Charley and Severo shared a vision of coexistence with Anglo-Americans. Chief Ignacio of the Weeminuche also played a prominent role in tribal negotiations with the government in the first several years after Ouray’s death.
In 1886, C.F. Stollsteimer, Indian agent at Ignacio, took Buckskin Charley, Ignacio, and the Caputa chief Tapuche to Washington, DC. The three chiefs agreed that all of the Southern Ute bands were ready to leave Colorado. A proposal was made in Washington for the removal of the Utes to southeastern Utah. Many Utes started the move into San Juan County, Utah, but the agreement was never ratified. Buckskin Charley, Severo, and most of the Southern Utes stayed on their reservation lands near Ignacio.
In 1894, affairs came to a head and Congress decided that the Utes should not be removed to Utah after all. In 1895, Congress passed the Hunter Act, which imposed upon the Utes the terms of the General Allotment Act of 1887, which authorized the president to survey and divide tribal land. By a vote of 153 to 148, the Southern Ute males agreed to accept allotments. The majority of the 153 were from the Mouache and Caputa bands, with most of the dissenting votes from the Weeminuche.
The government decided to divide the reservation into two parts. The eastern portion was to be allocated into 80- and 160-acre parcels; the western reservation was to remain unallotted with the lands held in common by the tribe. The Mouache and Caputa bands, under the leadership of Buckskin Charley and Severo, took the allotments and the Weeminuche band, led by Ignacio, moved to Navajo Springs, close to Towaoc, Colorado. Chief Severo died in 1913, leaving Buckskin Charley as the principal chief of the Southern Utes.
Leader on the Reservation
Buckskin Charley was one of the most enterprising and farm-oriented leaders of the Utes. He settled into farming and ranching on his 160-acre allotment and became one of the tribe’s principal owners of cattle and sheep. In this regard he was a role model for his people and an example of the government’s vision for the Utes. Buckskin Charley’s economic success was due in part to agency policies that resulted in preferential treatment of male leaders, including gratuity payments, salaried status of Indian police, setup of preallotment farms and equipment, double allotments, and by 1911 allowing tribal leaders limited control over their own bank accounts. Buckskin Charley was considered one of the favored Utes, although he continued with relative success after gratuities were removed in the early twentieth century.
Buckskin Charley was also an advocate of youth education, as long as the children did not have to leave the reservation. Early on, Ute children were sent to Indian Boarding Schools such as Old Fort Lewis at Hesperus, Colorado, or further away to Santa Fe or Albuquerque, New Mexico, where many died. Chief Ignacio is said to have lost three of his children while they attended boarding school in Albuquerque.
Buckskin Charley and his wife, Emma Buck, were active participants in the peyote rites of the Native American Church. The Sun Dance religion took a firm hold on the Southern Ute Reservation with Buckskin Charley as its leader. In contrast, Severo and Julian Buck, Charley’s oldest son, were converts to the Presbyterian Church. At the invitation of Julian Buck, Rev. A. J. Rodríguez set up a mission school near the Ignacio Agency.
Forty-five years after Chief Ouray’s death, Buckskin Charley took the lead to recover the dead chief’s remains and have them reburied in Ouray Memorial Cemetery along the Los Pinos River in Ignacio.
Buckskin Charley died on May 8, 1936, at the age of ninety-six. He was preceded in death by his oldest son, Julian. On September 24, 1939, the Ute Chieftains Memorial Monument was dedicated in honor of four Ute Chiefs: Ouray, Buckskin Charley, Severo, and Ignacio. After Buckskin Charley’s death, his son Antonio Buck, Sr., the last hereditary chief of the Southern Utes, became the first elected chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.