Although the Ute Indian Tribe (Uintah and Ouray reservation) is the official designation of the tribe today, its members are frequently referred to as Northern Utes to distinguish them from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The Ute Indian Tribe’s reservation is located in northeastern Utah.
There is little written information about the Utes before 1650. According to their oral tradition, they have always lived in the region that is now northern New Mexico, Colorado, and eastern Utah. They were a nomadic mountain people and ranged throughout this area extensively, following the cycle of the seasons. The acquisition of the horse in 1640 allowed them to travel more easily over a wider range. For food, they hunted large game; gathered berries, nuts, roots and small game; and fished. For shelter, Utes built brush dwellings known as wickiups or used tipis. The family was and is the center of Ute life and includes immediate and extended family members.
The Ute people were originally organized into several bands, or groups of families. Each band occupied a general territory that was recognized by the other bands. Bands gathered periodically throughout the year. The nature of the land determined their lifestyle. Their native language is from the Southern Numic branch of Uto-Aztecan. There are regional differences in Ute speech, but all dialects are mutually intelligible. In addition to language, the bands were and are tied together by religion and customs such as the Bear Dance.
The 1800s were a difficult time for the Utes. Not only did they have to endure sporadic outbreaks of Old World diseases such as smallpox, but their territory was also increasingly encroached upon by other tribes, as well as traders, miners, and settlers. This intrusion was met with both resistance and attempts at compromise through negotiations. Various treaties resulted in the loss of much of the Utes’ land. The Ute Indian Tribe’s Uintah and Ouray reservation was established in 1861 by executive order of Abraham Lincoln, although they continued to hunt and range in eastern Utah, western Colorado, and Wyoming for some time thereafter.
The modern-day Ute Indian Tribe consists of three bands: White River, Uintah, and Uncompahgre. The people now called Uintah Utes are descended from many smaller bands that had been living in various parts of Utah. The White River and Uncompahgre bands were removed from the state of Colorado to the reservation in 1879 following the Meeker incident. In 1878, Nathan Meeker was appointed the White River Indian agent. He was an autocratic administrator who was hostile toward the Ute Indians and their traditions. His alienation of the Ute people reached a crisis point when he ordered the land the Utes used for pasturing and racing horses to be plowed. Large numbers of US troops were called in, tensions escalated, and violence ensued. Meeker and his employees were killed and Meeker’s family was kidnapped. The hostages were released after negotiations by Chief Ouray, but the incident provided the rationale for removing the two Ute bands from Colorado.
In addition to Chief Ouray and his wife, Chipeta, other Ute Indian leaders worked to resolve problems during this time, including Sowiette, Antero, Kanosh, Black Hawk, Tabby-to-Kwanah, Wakara, Nicaagat, Quinkat, Colorow, Paant, Shavano, and Suriap.
Once confined to the reservation, the Ute people were unable to follow their traditional way of life. US government promises of supplies and money were often unfulfilled. Their land was subjected to the Dawes Act of 1887, in which allotments were given to individuals and unassigned land was sold to non-Utes in an effort to change their traditional relationship to the land.
In 1937, under the Indian Reorganization Act, the Uintah and Ouray Ute Tribal Business Committee was established. The committee had limited power and was organized in a nontraditional way. The tribe continued to suffer economic woes and internal divisions. Utes struggled to preserve their water and land rights, as well as sovereignty. For example, in 1965 the tribe signed an agreement with the Central Utah Water Conservancy District that gave the state permission to draw water from the reservation, but only after it built a water project on Ute land so the tribe could actually use its water rights. The project was never completed, and the tribe was not offered a settlement until 1992. In 1986, after several years of litigation, 3 million acres taken in the early 1900s were returned to the Utes. Similar efforts continue to the present as the tribe seeks to reclaim hunting rights in western Colorado granted prior to its expulsion from the state.