The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is one of three federally recognized tribes of the Nuche (Ute) people. Their tribal lands comprise 597,288 acres of trust land and 27,354 acres of fee land in southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and small, isolated sections of Utah. Approximately 2,200 tribal members live on, work on and use these lands. The largest portion of the reservation is in Montezuma County, which is bordered by Mesa Verde National Park to the northeast, the Southern Ute Tribe to the east, the Diné (Navajo) Nation to the south and west, and a mix of US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands and private lands, including the city of Cortez, to the north. Tribal Headquarters is located in the town of Towaoc at the base of Sleeping Ute Mountain in the southwest corner of Colorado.
The history of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is dominated by a long process of territory contraction and cession. Prior to contact with Europeans, the Ute people inhabited a vast expanse that included much of present-day Utah, Colorado, and northern New Mexico. They are generally believed to have first appeared as a distinct people in AD 1000–1200 in the southern part of the Great Basin, an area roughly located in eastern California and southern Nevada. The Ute people migrated to the Four Corners region by 1300, from where they continued to disperse across Colorado’s Rocky Mountains over the next two centuries.
As they expanded across the Great Basin the Utes were connected by the Southern Numic language, a division of the Uto-Aztecan language family. The Numic branch spread with the dispersal of the Utes from the southern Great Basin, with three linguistic divisions eventually emerging west of the Rockies: Western Numic, which includes Mono, Northern Paiute, Snake, and Bannock; Central Numic, spoken by Comanche, Gosiutes, and Shoshone; and Southern Numic, which includes the Southern Paiute, Kawaiisu, Chemehuevi, and Ute. While there were regional differences in Ute speech, all dialects were mutually intelligible. This mutual intelligibility implies many overlapping social networks in spite of the vast territory the Ute inhabited.
By the early seventeenth century, Nuche territory included portions of the Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau, and the Central and Southern Rockies. This extensive area was inhabited by a population estimated at upwards of 5,000–10,000, although lower population levels may be more likely. While a definitive listing of Ute bands is made difficult by their fluid membership and high mobility, a loose confederation of thirteen bands was in place by the seventeenth century. It included seven eastern bands with ranges primarily in present-day Colorado and six western bands in present-day Utah. The eastern bands included the Yampa, Parianuche, Sabuagan, Tabeguache, Weeminuche, Capote, and Muache, and the western bands were the Uintah, Timpanogots, Pahvant, Sanpits, Seuvarits, and Moanunts.
By the 1860s, white American officials described the eastern bands in terms of three amalgamated groups: the “Uncompahgre,” “White River,” and “Weenuche.” By the 1890s, these amalgamated bands resided on three distinct reservations in eastern Utah and southwestern Colorado. The band eventually composing the Ute Mountain Ute people is referred to in historic texts as both the Weeminuche and Weenuche; on its website the tribe refers to itself as the Weeminuche.
The earliest known records of European contact with Indigenous inhabitants in western Colorado are from Juan María de Rivera, who explored the region during two expeditions in 1765. Rivera recorded a group he called the Sabuagans, which part of the group that later came to be called the Uncompahgre. A decade later Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and his partner Silvestre Escalante traveled farther north, reaching the White River in 1776, then west as far as Utah. The Dominguez-Escalante journal mentions various encounters with “Sabuagana Yutas” in areas around the Colorado River near Grand Mesa and the Roan Plateau.
After the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, there were few expeditions into western Colorado by Euro-Americans until the 1820s.
Despite claims by historians past and present that the Nuche obtained horses from the Spanish, there is evidence that horses were endemic in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. Whether or not they obtained horses from the Spanish or developed existing herds, by the time of first contact the Weeminuche had become fine horsemen. Trade with the Spanish allowed them to expand their herds. They lived parts of the springs and summers in large encampments of 200 or more lodges. Horses allowed the Utes to travel farther than previously possible for subsistence. They expanded the seasonal circuits within their traditional territory, venturing as far east as the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. Travel times decreased, allowing them to stay together for longer periods throughout the year. The size and importance of winter encampments also grew, as Utes were able to pack additional food and supplies capable of sustaining more people.
The horse became an integral part of Ute culture. Horses were one of the most prized possessions and were a principal symbol of wealth and pride. Through both trade and theft, the Utes amassed large herds, which thrived on the native grasses of the mountain valleys and plains and multiplied quickly without selective breeding. Utes often rode bareback or used leather pads with short stirrups. These special stirrups hung from the horse’s mane and allowed the rider to drop to one side and shoot under the horse during battle. The Nuche also developed their own saddles, sometimes using animal horns to make the pommel in the front of the saddle and the cantle in the back. Mastery of horses allowed to accumulate more material goods and expand both their territory and their role as important middlemen in the intertribal horse trade.
The horse made the Utes among the most feared and powerful tribes in the Four Corners by the early eighteenth century. They carried out raids in northern New Mexico, stealing horses and goods from the Spaniards, Pueblo peoples, the Jicarilla Apache to the east, and the Navajos to the southwest. They raided the unmounted Western Shoshone and Southern Paiutes to steal women and children, whom they sold to the Spanish in New Mexico. While the Utes entered into a treaty with the Spanish in 1670, they sided with the Pueblo people during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and subsequently used the opportunity to raid the pueblos, including the Hopi. By 1700 the Utes were aligned with the Comanche, who first acquired horses via the Utes in the late seventeenth century. Together, the two tribes intermittently carried out extensive raids against their neighbors for the next fifty years.
Early Nineteenth Century
In the early nineteenth century, fur trappers and traders began arriving in Ute territory in increasing numbers. Since their arrival, the Spanish had been largely successful in limiting the Ute’s trade with outside peoples. But as trade restrictions were relaxed in 1810, the Utes were gradually able to interact more with outsiders, and with Mexico’s independence in 1821 the doors were opened even wider. French Canadians and Americans soon arrived—seeking beaver, otters, and other furs—and all but ended the isolation of the Utes.
Adding to this was the additional traffic brought on by the Old Spanish Trail, a trade route between Santa Fe and California that by the late 1820s was being used extensively by pack trains. While it provided the Utes new opportunities for trading and looting, the trail also opened up their traditional territory to a flood of newcomers seeking land and resources. Trading posts and Euro-American trade goods became part of the Ute landscape during this period.
Throughout the Mexican period, the eastern and southern Ute bands were able to maintain their traditional lands and were minimally affected by white expansion. The territory of the three Southern Ute bands changed little from the arrival of the Spanish through the 1840s. However, drastic encroachments on that territory would ensue after the United States’ victory in the Mexican-American War (1846–48).
In 1849 twenty-eight principal and subordinate Ute chiefs signed the Calhoun Treaty, or Treaty of Abiquiú. Generally considered the first treaty with the Utes, it submitted the tribe to the jurisdiction of the United States and agreed to peace with US citizens and allies. The treaty also provided US citizens with free passage through Ute territory and allowed for the establishment of military and trading posts. In exchange for these concessions, the Utes were promised presents and farming implements.
The treaty of 1849 was followed by a series of other treaties and land cessions that forced the Utes into ever smaller territories. Ute reservation boundaries were repeatedly reduced during the period, especially after the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59. Following the 1879 Meeker Incident, in 1881 the White River and Uncompahgre Utes were forcibly removed to reservation lands in eastern Utah.
During this stage the government hoped that persuading Native Americans to live a settled, agricultural existence might curb the raids that had sustained the tribes in preceding years. However, this policy did not address the fact that the Utes had led a migratory existence for centuries, and as settlement was forced upon them, they became increasingly hostile toward the government and settlers.
On August 8, 1855, the governor of the New Mexico Territory negotiated a treaty with the Capote Utes in New Mexico. The treaty provided the Utes with 2,000 square miles north of the San Juan River and east of the Animas River if they agreed to stay out of New Mexico. It was never ratified, however, and after violent conflicts between Utes and miners in Colorado, a treaty council was convened in 1863 in an effort to move the Ute bands to the Four Corners area. Openly protesting relocation, the Weenuche, Capote, and Muache bands refused to attend the council or sign the treaty. Several Taviwach chiefs did sign the treaty, relinquishing all the Utes’ mineral rights and land in the San Luis Valley.
Additional Land Cessions
The creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861 placed many Ute people into separate jurisdictions, ignoring extended kinships and friendships. With reduced trade relations and diminished access to game, the Nuche were forced to depend on the US government. In response, the government established agencies at Abiquiú, Tierra Amarilla, and Cimarron in order to provide food and supplies before each winter and spring.
Increased pressure from white settlers and the US government led to additional treaties that diminished the Utes’ tribal lands. The Treaty of 1868 was signed by most of the Colorado Ute bands in 1868 and reduced Ute lands from approximately 56 million acres to about 18 million. This treaty established the first Ute reservation in Colorado and promised the Utes that non–Native Americans could not pass through or reside on the reservation. Additionally, it established an agency on the Los Piños River to serve the Tabeguache, Muache, Weeminuche, and Capote bands as well as an agency on the White River to serve the Grand River, Yampa, and Uintah bands.
Soon after the 1868 treaty, however, large mineral deposits were discovered in the San Juan Mountains, and under pressure from mining interests the US government negotiated the Brunot Agreement in 1873.The agreement appropriated an additional 3.45 million acres from the Colorado Ute bands. As a result of this agreement, the southern portion of the Ute reservation became a section of land approximately 110 miles long running east from the Utah boundary along the New Mexico–Colorado border, and fifteen miles wide running due north of the New Mexico boundary.
The second half of the 1870s was characterized by anger, frustration, and tragedy as the various Ute bands adjusted to difficult and unfamiliar living conditions. Reluctant to take up permanent residences, the Muache and Capote nonetheless began to yield to life on a reservation and started moving north out of New Mexico. The Weeminuche maintained a degree of independence, sustaining themselves in the Four Corners region. However, the situation of the Utes was in constant flux, as demonstrated by Congress’s repeated attempts to move the three Southern Ute bands.
Following the Meeker Incident in northwest Colorado, 665 Utes from the White River Agency were forcibly relocated to the Uintah Reservation in 1880. There they found 800 other Utes from various bands. A total of 361 Uncompahgre Utes were also forced to sell their lands and move under armed guard to Ouray, a new reservation in Utah established by an executive order in 1882. This new reservation was adjacent to the Uintah Reservation.
The federal government passed the Dawes Act in 1887, which divided reservation lands into allotments that belonged to individual tribal members. Family heads were to receive 160 acres and single individuals 60 acres, although in reality the allotments were more haphazard. The thought was that with land of their own, Indigenous people could live more like the people who stole and divided their land. While a portion of the unallotted land was to be left to the tribe for common use, ensuing acts by Congress eventually made it public domain, and the land became available to white homesteaders at minimal prices.
Creation of Ute Mountain Ute Reservation
The Weeminuche resisted the Dawes Act, whereas the Muache and Capote bands accepted the allotment. The Weeminuche band, under Ignacio’s leadership, found the idea so alien to their tradition that they refused to accept allotments and moved to the western portion of the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, which later became the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. Lands not allotted, or about 85 percent of the reservation, were declared “excess” by the federal government and opened to white settlers in 1895.
By 1896 371 Muache and Capote adults and minors had received allotments of land totaling approximately 73,000 acres, with the much larger portion of the eastern Consolidated Ute Reservation (523,079 acres) becoming public domain open to homesteaders. The Weeminuche, having refused to agree to the allotment, maintained a portion of the southwestern corner of Colorado. This approximately fifteen-by-fifty-mile tract of land (plus nearly six adjacent townships in New Mexico) eventually became the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation by the early 1900s.
In 1911 one of the last pieces of land taken from the Ute people was the area that now makes up Mesa Verde National Park. The federal government acquired more than 52,000 acres of land for the park in 1911, in exchange for some acreage on the northern boundary of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation.
By the 1930s, government policies began shifting away from the internal colonialism of the nineteenth century and early twentieth. In 1934 the Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act or the Indian New Deal, provided for self-government by tribes through tribal councils composed of elected members and a chairman. Until 1970 tribal constitutions and bylaws required the approval of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), federal money provided to tribes was managed by the BIA, and tribal budgets were subject to approval by the secretary of the interior. In 1970, however, President Richard M. Nixon publicly proclaimed a new era in Indian affairs—one of true self-determination.
Though not all Nuche supported the move, Colorado's two federally recognized tribes did establish themselves as self-governing sovereign nations. In 1936, well before Nixon’s proclamation of Indian self-determination, the Southern Ute Tribe adopted a constitution and established a tribal council. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe followed suit in 1940. As a result of these newly formed and recognized governments petitioning Washington, orders of restoration returned 222,000 acres to the Southern Ute Tribe in 1937 and 30,000 acres to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in 1938.
The Ute Mountain Ute people have been building a thriving community ever since. Successful Ute-owned enterprises now include the Weeminuche Construction Authority, which worked with the BLM to build the Animas–La Plata project dam and intake pump station, as well as the Ute Mountain Casino, the largest employer on the reservation, and the Farm and Ranch Enterprise, an award-winning producer of a wide variety of agricultural crops. Additionally, the Ute Mountain Tribal Park contains some of the nation’s most spectacular ruins and supports a thriving heritage tourism business.