Wickiups were temporary conical and domed shelters constructed by the Native American inhabitants of Colorado for millennia. Because of the perishable nature of their construction materials, a vast majority of wickiups and other prehistoric wooden structures have vanished from the landscape. Consequently, most of the remaining wooden features in Colorado were built during the past 100 to 300 years.
Those features that do remain as archaeological resources are rapidly disappearing as a result of natural deterioration, fire, human destruction—whether intentional or not—livestock and wildlife impacts, and other physical threats. The remnants of these features are leading archaeologists to some of the last habitation sites of the late prehistoric and more recent Native Americans in the state.
Almost universally attributed to the early historic Ute, many wickiup sites and features in the state have yet to be fully recorded. It is acknowledged that in portions of Colorado many are likely of Shoshone, Comanche, Arapaho, Cheyenne, or other tribal origins. A majority of the sites known in the state are in the plateau/canyon country of west-central and northwest Colorado; however, sites have been documented in the mountains and the Front Range.
Colorado Wickiup Project
Dominquez Archaeological Research Group’s (DARG) Colorado Wickiup Project (CWP) is an ongoing effort to document the aboriginal wooden features in the state. The CWP, during its initial 13 years, has documented 446 wooden features on 90 sites primarily in the piñon-juniper habitat of western Colorado. These features include wickiups, tipi frames, lean-tos, sunshades/ramadas, canvas wall tent sites, tree platforms, windbreaks, corrals and fences, pole caches, firewood piles, tripods, utility poles and racks, and culturally modified trees. The findings have provided new insights into the final decades of the state’s sovereign Native American occupants, including extensive evidence of off-reservation activities after the 1880s, and their continued occupancy of traditional homelands after the removal of a majority of people to reservations.
Several observations from the data are of particular interest. Of the 446 features, 244 (55 percent) are wickiups and other shelters—including five lean-tos, one ramada, two wall tents, and eight structures interpreted as possible tipi frames. Of these shelters, 236 (53 percent) are wickiups/tipis. Two-thirds of the wickiups/tipis are categorized as “leaners” and “pull-downs,” which are supported by standing trees rather than freestanding. Taking into consideration the variety of factors outlined by CWP researchers, primarily the additional reinforcement offered by support trees, it appears that freestanding wickiups may have originally been as prevalent, perhaps even more so, as leaner wickiups on Ute sites.
Archaeological Field Methods
Essential documentation for all wooden features includes the completion of one of the CWP’s Aboriginal Wooden Feature Component forms that provides precise location data, measurements, photographs, and plan maps of standing structures. Further analysis of selected sites involves mapping of artifacts, excavation, metal detection, and the collection of time diagnostic artifacts as well as dating and collection of botanical samples. The information is then assembled into a localized and accessible database.
Accurate dating of these very recent features (in the realm of archaeology) is critically important in relation to a number of research topics. Unfortunately, radiocarbon dating typically provides date ranges of several decades or more. This margin of uncertainty is not a significant problem for sites that date from thousands of years in the past but it clearly presents difficulties for more recently used places that date to mere centuries ago—where the difference of a few decades, or even a few years, can make a critical difference in the interpretation of a site.
By far the most successful dating technique that is being used on these “late” Native American sites is tree-ring dating. In general, the Colorado Wickiup Project has restricted its tree-ring sampling to wooden elements such as wickiup poles that show evidence of having been harvested while alive. This is done to avoid relying on dates that reflect when a tree died of natural causes decades or centuries before it was collected and used by a site’s occupants, also known as the old wood issue. This research has produced dates ranging from AD 1771 to 1916.
The mere presence of historic ceramic wares on a site is an indicator of a resource’s age, and the nature of these artifacts can provide further indications of a site’s age (sometimes to within a few years or decades) in addition to insights into such factors as the presence of horses, guns, and so forth. Along with the tree-ring analysis of ax-cut feature elements and source trees, systematic scrutiny of anthills for glass seed beads, and the use of extremely fine mesh sifting screens (window screen and 1-millimeter mesh) to isolate bullet primers, shotgun pellets, and beads during excavation, metal detection has proven to be an absolute requirement for the analysis and interpretation of historic Native American sites.
Nearly half of the sites (42 percent) provide evidence of Euro-American trade goods—from iron projectile points and decorative tinklers to bullets and horse tack. If the twenty-three higher elevation sites are removed from the sample—where very little remains in the way of ax scars or other evidence—this percentage increases to over half. It is surmised that even more of the sites date to post-European contact times based on the overall condition of the feature wood and the assumption that a percentage of these sites simply have not yet produced evidence of trade wares.
Eight of the fifteen sites that have produced “target” tree-ring cut dates (all within the piñon-juniper vegetation zone) demonstrate post-“Ute removal” occupation—that is, after 1881. Again, it can be assumed that a higher percentage of the tree-ring dated sites are post-removal, but it cannot be demonstrated as such due to the absence of an unknown number of outer rings on the tree-ring samples due to natural or cultural attrition.
The characteristics of wickiups and other forms of shelter make it clear that Ute peoples were much more opportunistic and pragmatic, and less rigid and ritualistic, regarding the design and construction of their shelters than has been previously suggested in the literature. Entryways, for example, have been found to be oriented in virtually every compass direction and hearths are found both on the interior and exterior of wickiups in roughly equal numbers and in various locations.
The documentation of the last remaining wickiups and other structures, along with the associated artifacts, is extremely important. In addition to the finding and recording of new wickiup sites in Colorado, there is a critical need to revisit all of the known sites in the state and bring the documentation and data collection up to current standards.