views updated May 21 2018



Ute (pronounced yoot ). The Ute call themselves Noochew, which means “Ute People.” The name of the state of Utah comes from the Spanish description for the Ute (Yutah ), which means “high land” or “land of the sun.”


Ute territory once included most of Colorado and Utah and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Wyoming. In the early twenty-first century the Northern Ute live on the Uintah and Ouray Ute Reservation, the second-largest Native American reservation in the United States, with headquarters in Fort Duchesne, Utah. The Southern Ute live on their own reservation in the southwestern corner of Colorado near Ignacio. The Ute Mountain Ute moved to the western end of the Southern Ute Reservation in 1897; their reservation is located near Towaoc, Colorado, and includes small sections of Utah and New Mexico.


In the 1600s there were about four thousand Ute. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 7,658 people identified themselves as Ute (572 Uintah Ute, 5,626 Ute, and 1,460 Ute Mountain Ute). In the 2000 census there were 7,309 Ute.

Language family


Origins and group affiliations

The seven to twelve bands (groups) who made up the Ute people probably left western Canada and Alaska and moved into their current homeland during the thirteenth century. Some historians believe heir presence may have forced the ancient Anasazi move from the mesa tops to sandstone caves for protection. The Ute themselves, though, say the Anasazi were gone before they arrived. In their search for food the Ute fought with numerous other tribes, including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Sioux, Kiowa, Pueblo, Apache, Hopi, Navajo, Shoshone, and Paiute.

In modern times the Ute bands form three main groups: the Northern Ute (the largest), the Southern Ute, and the Ute Mountain Ute.

The Ute were a fearless people; some historians say they were equal in skill and cunning to the Apaches. They once roamed over 79 million acres of the Great Basin area. Through many centuries their feet carved out trails in the beautiful mountainous landscape of the West, and the signs they left to guide themselves proved invaluable to the white settlers who took their lands from them. Although the Ute struggle with poverty and other problems today, they retain an unconquerable spirit, a sense of humor, and many of their ancient customs.


Early relations with Spanish

Before they first met Europeans, the Ute were a varied and widespread tribe. They ranged over 79 million acres, from the forested slopes of the Rocky Mountains to the barren deserts of Utah. They never really formed a “tribe,” in the true sense of the word. Instead, individual members gave their loyalty to their extended family group or to a small, independent band led by a chief. They did this because food was scarce, and small groups needed to cover a great deal of territory to find enough to feed themselves.

At first the Ute wandered their territory on foot, hunting and gathering food. In the 1600s they acquired horses from the Spanish, and their lives underwent a tremendous change. Because their land was well-suited to grazing livestock, they raised horses, cattle, and sheep. Where they had once gathered and hunted small game, they began to hunt buffalo.

Riding on horseback increased their ability to travel long distances—as far away as the territory claimed by other tribes. The Ute began raiding neighboring tribes and the Spanish settlements springing up in New Mexico. They took hostages, horses, and other goods; their raiding skills earned them a reputation as a warlike people.

The Spanish sent expeditions into Ute country in the 1600s looking for gold, and many written records tell of their meetings with the Ute. One account noted: “They were said to be very skillful with the bow and arrow and were able to kill a buffalo with the first shot.” In 1670 the Spanish signed a peace treaty with the Ute, but this did not stop the Ute from raiding the Spanish and others for horses. The Spanish penetrated farther into previously unknown Ute territory to set up an extensive trading network.

Important Dates

1637: First known contact between the Ute and the Spanish. The Ute acquire horses, and their lifestyle changes.

1670: The Ute sign a peace treaty with Spanish.

1861: Uintah Reservation (later the Uintah and Ouray Reservation) is established in Utah.

1868: A reservation is established for the Colorado Ute.

1879: The Ute kill 13 U.S. soldiers and ten Indian agency officials, including Nathan Meeker, in a conflict that becomes known as the “Meeker Massacre.”

1895: The Weminuche band moves to the western end of the Southern Ute Reservation and becomes the Ute Mountain Ute.

1896: Colorado and Utah (Northern) Ute form the Confederated Bands of Ute Indians and file claims for lands illegally taken.

1950: The Confederated Ute Tribes receive $31 million from the U.S. government for lands wrongfully taken in the 1800s.

Loss of land to Mexicans

When Mexico took control of the territory (lands that would later be parts of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico) in 1821, the pattern of trading and exploration of Ute land continued. The Mexicans wanted to own Ute land, because it was beautiful and excellent for grazing livestock. The Mexican government granted its citizens farm and ranch land in Ute territory, which angered the Native Americans. As the years went by, Ute raids on Mexican settlements continued.

When the United States won the Mexican-American War (1846–48; a war fought between the United States and Mexico which led to loss of about one-half of Mexico’s national territory to the United States) and took over the land of the Ute, the federal government agreed to respect the land grants given to settlers by the Mexican government. The Ute were unhappy about this, but believed the Americans would make better trading partners than the Mexicans had been. In fact, the Ute had good relations with trappers and “mountain men” who came into their territory. Those men had no interest in settling on Ute land. The Ute shared their knowledge of the vast area of their homelands with these early visitors.

In 1849 the first treaty between the Ute and the United States was signed. Ute bands acknowledged that the United States was now in charge and agreed to peace and friendship. They promised not to leave their usual territory without permission and to allow U.S. citizens to build military posts and Indian agencies on Ute lands.

Losing land to Americans in Utah and Colorado

Utah was at the time being settled by Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who began moving there in the 1840s. Soon they were trying to convert the Ute and were calling Ute land their own. The fighting that resulted led President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) to establish the Uintah Valley Reservation for the Ute in Utah in 1861. In 1886 the reservation became the Uintah and Ouray Ute Reservation.

In Colorado, gold was discovered in 1859, and white miners and settlers poured into the area. In 1863 some Ute signed a treaty in which they agreed to give up mineral rights (gold) in exchange for an 18-million-acre reservation (it later became the Southern Ute Reservation). The bands who signed the treaty kept their own hunting grounds and signed over the lands of other Ute who were not present at the treaty meetings.

In 1868 most Colorado Ute signed a treaty reducing their land to 15 million acres. Two Indian agencies were established, at White River and Los Pinos. Five years later, when more gold was discovered, the Ute were forced to give up 3.4 million acres of their Colorado reservation.

Continued conflict erupts in “massacre”

Conflict continued between white settlers and Ute bands in Colorado. White missionaries and Indian agency officials tried to convert the Ute to Christianity and to convince them to adopt a farming lifestyle, but the Ute resisted. They did not want to farm or stay on reservations, where the hunting was poor and there was little room to roam. After Colorado became a state in 1876, non-Native inhabitants decided “the Utes must go.”

The conflict came to a head in 1879 when Nathan Meeker (1817–1879), an Indian agent at White River, grew frustrated by the Ute’s refusal to become farmers. He called in government troops to help him plow the Native Americans’ horse-racing track, so they would stop amusing themselves there and start farming. The Ute considered Meeker’s actions a declaration of war and warned that the army would not be allowed to enter their territory. When a force of 150 U.S. soldiers arrived, the White River Ute ambushed them at Milk Creek. After nearly a week of fighting, the Ute had killed 13 soldiers and wounded 48 others. With the support of two late-arriving backup regiments, the troops pushed forward to the Indian agency, where they found Meeker and nine of his white employees dead. The Ute had also taken several women and children hostage.

Chief Ouray (c. 1833–1880), a respected Ute leader, helped negotiate an end to the hostilities and arranged for the release of the women and children. White settlers, however, used the “Meeker Massacre” as a rallying cry in their battle to remove the Ute from Colorado. The Meeker tragedy was one of the last major Native American uprisings in the United States. After Ouray died in 1880, the White River Ute were forced to move to the Uintah Reservation in Utah. Members of other Colorado Ute bands were driven at gunpoint to the Ouray reservation adjacent to Uintah in 1882.

The allotment period

The Ute (and many other Native Americans) did not settle down to farming fast enough to suit white Americans. Many settlers also protested that too much land had been set aside for Native Americans. To respond to their complaints, the U.S. Congress passed the General Allotment Act in 1887.

The Allotment Act was intended to hasten assimilation, a process whereby Native Americans became more like white Americans. Reservation land was divided into parcels (allotments) that would be owned by individual Native Americans rather than by the tribe as a whole. The land “left over” was opened to white settlement.

To the Ute, who did not like farming and did not believe in individual ownership of land, the allotment policy was unwelcome. Some successfully resisted, perhaps because their land was not considered desirable. They occupied the western end of the Southern Ute Reservation, and that area eventually became the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. Land at the Southern Ute Reservation and the Uintah and Ouray Reservation were allotted to Native Americans. The remainder was sold, so that both reservations today are checkerboards of Native American-owned and non-Native American-owned land.

The Ute in modern times

In 1896 the Colorado and Utah (Northern) Ute formed the Confederated Bands of Ute Indians. They pressed the U.S. government to pay them back for land they said was wrongfully taken from them, both by treaties and by the allotment policy. Finally, in 1950 the Ute were awarded $31.7 million. Since then they have engaged in many complex talks with local governments, trying to clarify issues such as hunting and water rights, taxes, and territorial boundaries. They have met with successes (gaining permission to hunt outside the state-ordered hunting season, for example) and frustrating delays (defining their water rights; see “Current Tribal Issues”).


The Ute believe in a Supreme Being and a number of lesser gods, such as the gods of war, peace, thunder and lightning, and floods. The Ute also have a strong faith in life after death and believe that a good spirit will lead them to the Happy Hunting Ground when they die. They believe in an evil spirit called the skinwalker. Long ago skinwalkers were esteemed Navajo warriors who could change themselves into coyotes or foxes and sneak into enemy camps. Once the Indian wars were over, skinwalkers used their powers for evil. The Ute believe that skinwalkers can steal a person’s soul.

Some Utah Ute converted to the Mormon religion in the 1800s. A Catholic Church was established in Ignacio, Colorado, in 1898, and found some converts among the Southern Ute. Many Ute today participate in the Native American Church, which formed in Oklahoma in 1918. The church brought together several groups of Native North Americans who had been practicing the peyote (pronounced pay-OH-tee ) religion since the 1880s. Peyote is a substance obtained from cactus; when eaten, it causes a person to see visions. The religion involves an all-night service held in a tepee.


The language spoken by the Ute people is called Shoshonean; it is a variation of the Uto-Aztecan language that was spoken by the Hopi, Paiute, Shoshone (see entries), and others. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, more than 1,100 people spoke Ute at home. The tribe also uses their language during cultural events and public meetings. According to a 1990 study, about half of the residents of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation and about one third of the residents of the Northern and Southern Ute Reservations knew at least some of their Native languages as well as English. Growing numbers of young people on all three reservations speak only English, however, causing some concern about how long the Native language can last.

Early in the twenty-first century approximately 1,500 people spoke the language. Because it has always been an oral language, the Ute are now developing an alphabet. One of the difficulties they face is that some sounds have no equivalent letters in English, so new symbols must be created. Having a written language will help in passing on their heritage. The Ute Mountain Ute have begun language classes for preschoolers in Head Start programs, so they will become fluent in their native language.


Ute were organized into extended family groups or small independent bands led by a chief, who was chosen for his wisdom or skills. Families were held together by their respect for their chief. Those who lost their respect left and moved in with relatives.

After they began to hunt buffalo, the Ute organized into larger groups with more powerful leaders. These leaders were in charge of moving camp and directing hunts, raids, and war parties.

After many years under the supervision of U.S. government agents on the reservations, in the 1930s the three major Ute groups adopted elective forms of government. The Uintah and Ouray Reservation is overseen by a tribal business committee, while the Ute Mountain Ute and the Southern Ute are governed by tribal councils.

Ute Population: 2000 Census

In the 2000 U.S. Census, 7,309 people identified themselves as Ute. The groups included in the census identified themselves this way:

Ute Population: 2000 Census
Uintah Ute838
Ute Mountain1,676
Southern Ute1,038

“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.


Early Ute economy was based on hunting and gathering and some trade with neighboring tribes. After they acquired horses, they traded more extensively, raised cattle, and raided to provide for themselves. The Ute traded dried buffalo meat and hides for Pueblo farm products, cotton blankets, pottery, salt, and turquoise. From the Hopis they acquired the red ocher paint (obtained from minerals) they sometimes used to decorate their faces and bodies. From the tribes on the Pacific Coast they got seashells. The Ute often took women and children in raids, and either adopted them as tribe members or traded them for products; for example, the Spanish traded horses for children to use as slaves.

After the arrival of white settlers in the 1800s, Ute territory disappeared at an alarming rate. Eventually the tribes were confined to reservations and attempts were made to force them to become farmers. Most Ute strongly resisted the agricultural lifestyle; instead they raised livestock and continued to hunt and gather their food.

Between the 1890s and the 1930s the Ute had difficulty supporting themselves. They lived on government handouts (mostly salt and beans) and raised small herds of livestock (cattle and sheep). Many took jobs as day laborers; most still lived in tents. The Ute also received some income from land leases.

In 1950 the Confederated Ute Tribes received $31 million from the U.S. government after winning a lawsuit over territory that had been wrongfully taken in the 1800s. The three major Ute groups divided the money. Around the same time oil and natural gas deposits were discovered on the reservations, giving the Ute another source of income. This allowed the Ute to make a number of improvements on their reservations, including the construction of modern homes for most of the tribe. The Ute also used some of the money to start businesses related to tourism, such as motels, restaurants, convention facilities, craft shops, a pottery factory, casinos, rodeos, and horse-racing tracks. Tourism is now the leading industry.

Daily life


The extended family (parents, children, grandparents, close relatives) was the basic unit of Ute society. Everyone shared responsibility for caring for children, but the primary caretakers were often young girls, who took over the job when they were about ten years old. The girls carried infant siblings around on wooden boards called cradleboards. Both boys and girls assisted with food gathering as soon as they were old enough.


For centuries everyone in a camp shared in the education of young children. Once they were confined to reservations, Ute parents were encouraged to send their children to government-run boarding schools, where students were not allowed to speak their own language and were punished for observing their old ways. In spite of this some held on to their old customs.

In the twentieth century Ute demanded nonsegregated public schooling for their children. (Native American children were educated separately from white children.) Since the 1960s Ute children on the reservations have been attending public schools in nearby communities.

Often there are difficulties because the children do not speak English well enough to understand what is going on in the classroom. Children suffer from poverty and poor self-esteem, and schools can be insensitive to the Native American culture. To illustrate this, newspaper reporter and author Jim Carrier described the experience of an eight-year-old Ute girl who was given this writing assignment: “The year is 1800. You and your family are traveling by covered wagon over the mountains to your new home in the West. You keep a diary and write down your exciting experiences. You have bad weather, Indian trouble and many other problems. Write down what you see, feel and hear.”


Ute homes varied depending on where the people lived. Most common were domed houses; they were round because the Ute believed the circle was a sacred shape. These houses were about 8 feet (2 meters) high and 15 feet (4.5 meters) around and consisted of a pole frame covered with willow branches or bark. Some groups built cone-shaped houses with pole frames covered with brush, bark, or reeds.

Groups who hunted on the Great Plains used small tipis covered with elk or buffalo skin. They often painted the tepees with brightly colored scenes and symbols. Sweathouses (or sweat lodges, buildings for ritual cleansing in which steam was produced by pouring water over heated rocks) were common then, and they are still used in modern times.

The Ute lived in their traditional types of homes until the 1950s, when settlements and housing funds allowed them to build modern homes.


In the very early days before the Ute had horses, the seven bands divided into small family groups for a large part of the year to gather what they could find in the large territory they occupied. Food was scarce, and groups had to cover great distances to locate it.

From spring until fall, family units hunted for deer, elk, and antelope. They gathered roots, seeds, and wild fruits and berries. They caught insects, lizards, rodents, and other small game. Crickets and grasshoppers were dried and mixed with berries to form a fruitcake. Some groups planted corn, beans, and squash in meadows and returned to harvest them in the fall.

In late fall the small groups rejoined the larger band and left the mountains to find sheltered areas for the winter. After they acquired horses in the 1630s, the Ute could hunt farther afield and capture more animals. Buffalo became a major source of food, clothing, and other items. The Ute were especially fond of jerky (meat—either buffalo or deer—cut into strips and dried). This meat specialty is still prepared on the reservations; today they use deer and elk meat. Jerky is mixed with corn to make stew, ground up and fried in lard, or eaten as a snack. Another modern specialty is frybread, plate-sized disks of bread fried in hot fat.

Clothing and adornment

Ute women were described by early observers as being extremely skilled at tanning hides, which were used in trade and for making clothing. They used the hides of buffalo, deer, elk, and mountain sheep. Ute women wore long, belted dresses, leggings, and moccasins. Men wore shirts, leggings, and moccasins for everyday activities, and they added elaborate, feathered headdresses on special occasions. Many men decorated their bodies and faces with paint, using yellow and black during times of war. Women sometimes painted their faces and the part in their hair. Some Ute pierced their noses and inserted small polished animal bones in the hole; some tattooed their faces using cactus thorns dipped in ashes. Necklaces of animal claws, bones, fish skeletons, and juniper seeds were sometimes worn by both sexes.

Paint, fringes of hair, rows of elk teeth, or porcupine quills dyed in bright colors decorated the clothing worn in early Ute ceremonies. Later, when the Ute acquired beads from European traders, their costumes included intricate beadwork.

Healing practices

Among the Ute, shamans (pronounced SHAH-munz or SHAY-munz )—medicine men and women—were healers as well as religious leaders. They acquired supernatural powers through their communication with the spirits of animals and dead people. Most shamans knelt down next to a sick person and sang a special curing song, often accompanied by the patient’s family. Some shamans also carried small bags containing special materials to aid in healing, including deer tails, small drums and rattles, and herbs. Sometimes medical treatment included placing sick people in a sweathouse and then plunging them into cold water to make their body unappealing to evil spirits.

By the early twenty-first century all the old-time Ute healers were dead. People use modern health-care facilities in urban areas, but those who still wish to consult medicine men can call on Navajo (see entry) medicine men in Arizona.


The traditional Ute crafts had nearly died out by the 1930s but have been revived. Some Ute maintain tribal customs by weaving baskets, creating pottery (the Ute Mountain Ute have their own pottery manufacturing plant), or working with beads or leather. They use these traditional works of art in ceremonies or sell them in gift shops.

Oral literature

Many Ute stories explained features of their natural surroundings. For example, they tell the legend of Sleeping Ute Mountain, which resembles a sleeping Indian with his headdress pointing to the north. The sleeping Indian was once a Great Warrior God who was wounded and fell into a deep sleep. Blood from his wound became water, and rain clouds fell from his pockets. The blanket that covers him changes colors with the seasons.


Hunting rituals

An Ute boy was considered a man when he proved he could provide meat. He was forbidden to eat his first kill. A woman was forbidden to eat deer meat during her menstrual period because to do so would spoil her man’s hunt.

Ute used deerskins as disguises when hunting that animal. They hunted elk on snowshoes, driving the animals into deep snow before killing them.

Sun Dances

The two ceremonies that were most important to the Ute were the Sun Dance and the Bear Dance; both are still performed annually.

The Sun Dance is a personal quest by the dancer for power given by the Great Spirit. But each dancer also represents his family and community, so the dance is a way of sharing. The Sun Dance originated from a legend in which a man and a woman left the tribe during a time of terrible famine. While on their journey, the couple met a god who taught them the Sun Dance ceremony. After they returned and performed the ritual with the tribe, a herd of buffalo appeared and the famine ended.

The Sun Dance ceremony includes several days of secret rites followed by a public dance performance around a Sun Dance pole, which is the channel to the Creator. The rites involve fasting, praying, smoking, and preparing ceremonial objects.

Newspaper reporter Jim Carrier described a modern Sun Dance on top of Sleeping Ute Mountain: “Night and day, for four days, the dancers charged the pole and retreated, back and forth in a personal gait. There were shuffles, hops, a prancing kick. While they blew whistles made from eagle bones, their bare feet marked a 25-foot (7.5-kilometer) path in the dirt.”

Bear Dances

The Bear Dance takes place every spring and honors the grizzly bear, who taught the Ute strength, wisdom, and survival. In the early days the tribe held the Bear Dance when bears emerged from hibernation. The dance was intended to waken the bear so he could lead the people to places where nuts and berries were plentiful. It was a grand social occasion after a long hard winter.

The Bear Dance involves building a large, circular enclosure of sticks to represent a bear’s den. Music played inside the enclosure symbolizes the thunder that awakens the sleeping bears. The dance is “lady’s choice”; it allows a Ute woman to show her preference for a certain man. The Bear Dance ceremony traditionally lasted for four days and four nights. Dancers wore plumes that they would leave on a cedar tree at the east entrance of the corral. Leaving the feathers behind represented discarding past troubles and starting fresh.

Current tribal issues

Recent struggles

One of the major issues facing the Ute in the 1990s involved water rights. Treaties dating back as far as 1868 guarantee water rights on reservation lands. The Ute Mountain Ute in Colorado never had safe drinking water on the reservations until the mid-1990s, when one part of a proposed $73 million water project was completed. For decades Ute Mountain land was parched because white farmers dammed the rivers that used to irrigate it. The Delores Irrigation Project, which brings water to the reservation by canal, has enabled the tribe to farm and ranch. It also pipes in drinking water, the first time the reservation has had access to a safe water supply.

The Ute Mountain Ute became involved in another controversy in 1986, when they began a business venture to transport tourists from Ute lands by helicopter to view ancient Anasazi ruins at the adjacent Mesa Verde National Park. The National Park Service argued that vibrations from the frequent helicopter flights damaged the ruins. The Ute had hoped to use the income from this and other tourist enterprises to improve the tribe’s education levels and employment opportunities. Now they engage in low-impact tourism (tourism that has limited impact on the environment) and have set up a nonprofit foundation to stabilize the ruins and protect and preserve the environment.

Today the Ute struggle with health issues such as obesity, diabetes, strokes, and alcoholism. On the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation in the late 1990s, life expectancy for men was only 38 years because of the high number of deaths from alcohol-related accidents and violence. By 2006 life expectancy had increased 48 for men and 52 for women, still much lower than the national average of 77.5 years.

Past triumphs

Scientists in the early twenty-first century are expanding on a technique that the ancient Ute used to construct ceremonial rattles. Called piezoelectricity, this technology puts crystals under pressure to produce electricity. Early Ute filled leather rattles with quartz crystals. When shaman shook them, they produced flashes of light. In modern times microphones and ignitors on gas grills and other modern devices use this basic design; but the Ute came up with the idea centuries before the rest of world discovered it.

Notable people

Chief Ouray (c.1833–1880) became a prominent spokesman and negotiator on behalf of the Ute people, thanks to his ability to speak several languages and other skills. He was born in Taos, New Mexico, and spent his youth working as a shepherd on Mexican-owned ranches, where he learned to speak Spanish. He moved to Colorado at the age of 18 and soon became a leader in the Ute tribe. At first he was revered as a cunning and dangerous warrior, but his career shifted as he came to realize that white settlement in his tribe’s territory could not be halted.

Ouray helped to arrange treaties between the Ute and the U.S. government in 1863 and 1868. In 1867 he assisted Kit Carson (1809–1868) a U.S. Army officer, in suppressing a Ute uprising. In 1868 he accompanied Carson to Washington, D.C., and acted as spokesperson for the seven Ute bands. In the negotiations that followed, the Ute retained 16 million acres of land. More miners trespassed on Ute lands, and in 1872, Ouray and eight other Ute again visited Washington, D.C., in an attempt to stress peace over warfare. In these talks the government pressured the Ute into giving up four million acres for an annual payment of $25,000. For his services, Ouray received an additional payment of $1,000.

After the Nathan Meeker massacre (see “History”), both the Native Americans and the U.S. government chose Ouray to represent them in peace talks. In 1880 Ouray again traveled to Washington, D.C., where he signed the treaty that relocated the White River Ute to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in Utah. Soon after his return from Washington, Ouray died in 1880 while on a trip to Ignacio, Colorado, where the Southern Ute Agency had been relocated. Lacking a strong voice for their interests, the Ute were removed from Colorado the following year.

Another notable Ute is tribal leader Walkara (1801–1855), one of the most powerful and renowned Native American leader in the Great Basin area from 1830 until the time of his death.

Carrier, Jim. West of the Divide: Voices from a Ranch and a Reservation. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1992.

Decker, Peter R. “The Utes Must Go!”: American Expansion and the Removal of a People. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2004.

Ryan, Marla Felkins, and Linda Schmittroth. Ute. San Diego: Blackbirch Press, 2003.

Simmons, Virginia McConnell. The Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000.

William, Wroth, ed. Ute Indian Arts and Culture: From Prehistory to the New Millenium. Colorado Springs: Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 2000.

Wyss, Thelma Hatch. Bear Dancer: The Story of a Ute Girl. Chicago: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2005.

Van Meter, David. “Energy Efficient.” Research: The University of Texas at Arlington (Fall 2006).

Southern Ute Indian Tribe. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

The Ute Indian Tribe. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

“The Story of the Ute Tribe: Past, Present, and Future.” Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

Ned Blackhawk, Associate Professor, Department of History, American Indian Studies Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Laurie Edwards


views updated May 21 2018


ETHNONYMS: Eutah, Utah, Utaw, Yuta


Identification. The Ute are an American Indian group located in Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. "Ute" is a shortened version of "Eutah," a term with uncertain origins. The name was likely borrowed by the Spanish from Ute neighbors who referred to the Ute as "Yu Tta Ci" (Southern Paiute), "Yota" (Hopi), and "Yu Hta" (Comanche). The meaning of "Utah" is likewise unclear. The Ute name for themselves is "Nu Ci," meaning "person" or "Indian."

Location. At the time of European contact in the 1600s and 1700s, the Ute occupied much of central and eastern Utah and all of western Colorado, as well as minor portions of northwestern New Mexico. For ease of discussion, the Colorado and New Mexico groups are often lumped together as Eastern and those from Utah are labeled Western Ute. Physiographically, this Ute homeland is diverse and includes the eastern fringe of the Great Basin, the northern Colorado Plateau, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and the east slopes of the Rockies and high plains of Colorado. Latitude and longitude of the region's center is approximately 39° N and 109° W.

Demography. In 1880, combined population figures for both Colorado and Utah Ute was some 3,975. By 1983 these numbers had increased modestly to 4,905. Precontact levels were likely considerably higher than these historic figures.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Ute speak Southern Numic, the easternmost of the Numic languages spoken by the majority of the Indians of the Great Basin-Plateau regions of the intermountain west. Numic is a branch of the Uto-Aztekan language family. Other groups speaking Southern Numic are the Southern Paiute and Kawaiisu. Some dialectical differences were present within Southern Numic, but no clear boundaries existed.

History and Cultural Relations

Linguistic and archaeological evidence argue for an arrival of Southern Numic-speakers in the eastern Great Basin and Plateau country about a.d. 1250-1350. At the time of European settlement in New Mexico in the 1600s and Utah in the late 1700s, the Ute were well established, but had developed along somewhat different trajectories. The Eastern Ute had converted to the horse-riding Plains life-style, and the Western Ute retained more traditional Great Basin patterns until the early 1800s when certain central Utah groups also adopted the horse and other Plains cultural trappings. Ute neighbors to the north, west, and east included other Numic-speakers, such as the Northern Shoshone, Western Shoshone, and Southern Paiute. Also to the south were the Pueblos, Navajo, and Apache. To the east were the Plains groups, such as the Wind River Shoshone (Numic-speakers), Arapaho, Comanche (Numic-speakers), and Southern Cheyenne. Relations were amicable with the Western Shoshone, but raids were common between the Ute and other Neighbors, especially the Plains peoples, with the exception of the Comanche. The unmounted Southern Paiute to the south were routinely subjected to raids by all Utes to obtain slaves, especially women and children, to trade to the Spanish.

Mormon immigration to the Great Basin in 1847 marked the beginning of the end for the traditional Western Ute way of life. Serious conflicts began in 1849, when settlers moved into Utah Valley, an important center of Ute settlement. Following the Walker War of 1850s and the Black Hawk War in the 1860s, all Western Ute were displaced from the eastern Great Basin and relocated in the Uinta Basin of northern Utah. For the Eastern Ute the process was slower. Reduction of lands began in the 1850s owing to a series of treaty agreements and continued until the 1880s. The Meeker Massacre of 1879 resulted in most of the northern Colorado Utes being placed on the Uinta Basin reservation. Other Eastern Utes moved to the small Southern Ute and Elk Mountain reservations in southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico.


The Ute are traditionally described in terms of geographically designated bands. Both the Eastern and Western groups consisted of five such bands. For the Eastern group they were the Muache, Capote, Uncompahgre, White River, and Weeminuche. The Western bands were the Uintah, Timpanogots, Sanpitch, Pahvant, and Moanunts. Throughout Ute territory Settlements tended to consist of a winter and a summer camp. For the Western and other nonequestrian Ute, winter camps were located in the valley bottoms adjacent to lakes, marshes, or streams or, in some cases, in the piñon juniper woodlands of the lower foothills where fuel and shelter were available and close to food caches. Spring in the valleys along the Eastern Great Basin was spawning season and a time for many Western Ute to hold festivities, dances, and games and to fish, especially in Utah Valley. In the summer people dispersed to gather ripening plant seeds and pursue individual hunting. In late summer and fall the Utes moved to the Uplands for hunting, berry picking, and piñon nut gathering. The Eastern Ute spent summers and early fall on the plains hunting bison, and these events were generally the time of greatest aggregation for the year. Winter camps consisted of smaller residential units located in sheltered areas in the foothills or valleys. Modern reservation towns, such as Fort Duchesne and Roosevelt on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation, are centers of modern Ute community and commercial life and are very much in the pattern of western towns. Dispersed Ute communities, however, such as that seen at White Mesa in southeastern Utah, are also fairly typical.


Subsistence and Commercial Activity. AU Utes at the time of European contact were hunters and gatherers, although the subsistence focus varied considerably from east to west. In general, Eastern Ute were more committed to a hunting economy, especially bison, whereas Western Ute diets were broader with more emphasis on smaller animals and fish. Important plant foods included piñon nuts, various small seeds, such as grass and bulrush, and roots. With the withdrawal of traditional foraging areas, the Ute turned to subsistence farming following the European pattern. Commercial farming has not been successful, and most modern employment is now in the energy-related fields or service jobs, especially with the federal government. Although numerous business ventures have been attempted, few have succeeded.

Industrial Arts. Traditional crafts such as basketry, weaving, and hide working persisted into the twentieth century. Beadwork on tanned leather or other materials continues to be produced, especially for the tourist market, but basketry and weaving have largely died out. Pottery was made prehistorically, but was not a well-developed craft.

Trade. Prehistoric trade is not well documented for the Ute. Obsidian and probably marine shells were likely traded, but the mechanisms are unknown. Following the arrival of European markets, such as the Spanish in New Mexico, the Utes were active in the fur trade and exchanged skins, furs, and slaves for horses, metal tools, beads, and other European goods. This commerce was active into the mid-1800s.

Division of Labor. Traditionally, economic tasks were segregated by sex. As a general rule, men hunted larger game and fished, and made weapons and tools related to hunting (bows and arrows, various portable traps, drive lines, and catch corrals) . Women gathered plant foods and made the items necessary for those activities, especially baskets. Numerous food-related efforts involved both sexes, however, especially with the Western Ute. For example, women made cordage of plant fibers with which the men wove the nets that were used in rabbit or waterfowl drives. Both men and women participated in these drives. Fishing was generally a male activity, but women made some fishing gear such as basketry traps. Women prepared and cooked food, built houses, made clothing, prepared skins, and made pottery. Some blurring of these divisions was common, also. Both men and women participated in shamanistic rituals. Historic employment trends are generally parallel with national patterns with both sexes working, but with more men employed than women. Women usually remain at home, and some pursue craft production for the tourist trade.

Land Tenure. Aboriginal land ownership was limited to usufruct rights to hunting and gathering for a family. Individual land ownership was apparently unknown. A degree of territoriality was present to the extent that non-Utes (for example, Shoshone) had no access to important resource areas such as the Utah Lake fishery. Anglo settlement and agricultural pursuits removed the more productive lands from Ute use. The Ute were eventually forcibly removed to reservation lands in Colorado and Utah. The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 further reduced Indian-owned lands and eventually opened Ute lands to Anglo homesteaders. The impact of this bill was reversed by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which allowed for consolidation of Indian properties and acquisition of other lands as well. In 1988 a legal suit brought by the Ute Tribe against counties and cities of the Uinta Basin returned significant portions of Ute lands in Utah, bringing the total held by that group to 4 million acres.


Kin Groups and Descent. No clans or other formal social units are known for the Ute. Residential units tended toward unranked matridemes. These units, which consisted of Several related families, were exogamous. Status within residential units was based on age, sex, and generation.

Kinship Terminology. Ute kin terms followed a skewed bifurcate collateral pattern.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages were often arranged by parents and relatives. Marriage to blood relatives (extended to first and second cousins) was forbidden. Wedding ceremonies were informal, and premarital intercourse at the girl's residence was considered marriage. Band exogamy was generally preferred. Polygyny existed and both the levirate and sororate were practiced; however, monogamy was the norm with less than 10 percent practicing polygamy. Divorce for reasons of sterility, infidelity, and incompatibility was and is common. Children usually remain with the mother. Residence was almost always matrilocal. Bride-service is not reported for the Ute, although it was common in other Great Basin groups.

Domestic Unit. Traditional households often included relatives such as grandparents and occasionally a spouse of one of the children. This pattern continues today. Singleparent families are very common because of high divorce rates. Households are often swelled by near kin as resources are combined in times of economic stress.

Inheritance. Inheritance patterns were poorly developed, for most personal material goods were burned at the death of the individual. Rights to eagle aeries, springs, and garden plots were passed down to surviving family members.

Socialization. Children were desirable and much attention was paid to the pregnant mother, birth, and child rearing. Often young children were tended by older siblings and by grandparents. Children were spoiled and indulged in a permissive environment. Ridicule was the primary means of discipline. Puberty rites were observed for both girls and boys. First menses was celebrated by the family by offering instructions to the girl and imposing food taboos and behavioral restrictions until the end of menstruation. Male puberty rites were not so well defined, but they usually revolved around the first killing of a large game animal. The boy was forbidden to eat of this kill, which was often given to an older relative. To celebrate the event further, the boy was bathed by a special hunter and painted red. Traditional education in crafts, Subsistence skills, and oral histories were provided to children by the appropriate grandparent. Education levels among Ute youths are low, with only half completing high school.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Ute social life was rooted in the Family. Within the family and among family groups elders, male and female, were respected and given special consideration. Prior to European contact, household leadership tended to be male-oriented, but with the growing numbers of Singleparent families, females are more often in family leadership roles.

Political Organization. Band organization was likely Present in the pre-horse era. Bands consisted of several residential units (demes) that united under a leader, usually an elder male who had demonstrated prowess as a hunter as well as wisdom in decision making. Leaders often had one or more assistants who served as speakers or in other capacities. The Western Ute had special chiefs selected to lead dances and rabbit, antelope, waterfowl, and bison drives. Utah Valley Ute had a special fishing chief. Councils consisted of deme leaders and usually met at the chief's house. Women were allowed to attend councils, as were men other than chiefs. Political patterns were strengthened after contact as access to the horse and raiding for the slave markets increased, thereby reinforcing the status of the leaders. This trend continued as Anglo culture often demanded a band or tribal spokesperson. Reservation-era tribal affairs have been directed by the tribal committees of the Ute Indian Tribe. Especially influential on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation is the Ute Tribal Business Committee formed in 1937 after the Indian Reorganization Act.

Social Control. Traditionally, group leaders played an important role in interpersonal altercations, but no formal process existed in the event of a crime or breach of trust. Individual retaliation was common and control difficult, as there were no means other than social for enforcement. Murders, for example, were usually avenged by relatives who killed the offender, an action condoned and expected by the society. Social controls were also sought through the use of myths and legends that depicted appropriate behavior and introduced the threat of ridicule or expulsion for unacceptable actions. As on other reservations, the federal government now has jurisdiction over serious crimes.

Conflict. Internal Ute conflicts erupted in the 1880s following the Meeker Massacre when White River and Uncompaghre Utes from Colorado were forced onto the Uintah Reservation. Uintahs resented having to share their reservation and further resented inequities in federal distributions of funds. Bad feelings also existed between the White River and Uncompaghre people based on events during and after the Meeker Massacre. In 1905 Ute-Anglo relations were strained by the opening of the Uintah-Ouray Reservation to Anglo use. In reprisal, a large contingent of Utes left the reservation and sought asylum with the Sioux in South Dakota. Failing this they were returned to the Uintah Basin in 1908. Further internal strife stemmed from a rift between mixed- and full-blood people. The former, because of Anglo contacts and better education, developed more political power in tribal affairs. The rift ultimately resulted in the termination (expulsion) of mixed-bloods (less than 50 percent Ute) from the tribal rolls in 1954. Bad feelings extended to the tribal Government, and a group known as the True Utes unsuccessfully attempted to disband this polity during the late 1950s.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religion was not formalized, but was nonetheless important and pervaded daily Ute life. An integral element of Ute metaphysics was the concept of power obtained from knowledge received through dreams, visions, or from mythical beings. Religion was expressed at the level of the individual rather than through group activity. Senawahv is named as the Ute creator of the land, animals, food, plants, and the Utes themselves. Animals, especially wolf and coyote, were commonly depicted in myths in which they were described as having humanlike traits combined with some mystical powers. Belief in water babies, supernatural beings that lived in springs, was widespread among Great Basin Indians. Ghosts and souls were real and feared. Charms for various purposes were also common. Several Christian religions Currently have followings among the Utes as does the Native American church.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans held the power of healing obtained through dreams or from other shamans. Healing methods involved songs, dances, and various pieces of paraphernalia, the forms for all of which were learned through the dreams. Special shaman designations included weather, bear, evil, sexual, and childbirth. Both men and women practiced shamanism. A payment was expected if the cure was successful.

Ceremonies. Two ceremonies have dominated Ute social and religious life: the Bear Dance and the Sun Dance. The former is indigenous to the Ute and aboriginally was held in the spring to coincide with the emergence of the bear from hibernation. The dance was held in a large brush enclosure or dance plaza and lasted about ten days. The dancing, which was mostly done by couples, propitiated bears to increase hunting and sexual prowess. A theme of rebirth and fertility is pervasive throughout. This theme was reinforced by the announcement of the completion of a girl's puberty rites during the ceremony. The Sun Dance was borrowed from the Plains tribes between 1880 and 1890. This ceremony was held in July, and the dancing lasted for four days and nights. The emphasis of the Sun Dance was on individual or community esteem and welfare, and its adoption was symptomatic of the feelings of despair held by the Indians at that time. Participants often hoped for a vision or cures for the sick. Consistent with the emphasis of this ceremony was the fact that dancing was by individuals rather than couples as was the case with the Bear Dance. Both ceremonies continue to be held by the Ute, although the timing of the Bear Dance tends to be later in the year. The Ghost Dance was briefly popular during the late 1880s and 1890s on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation.

Arts. The Ute enjoy singing and many songs are specific to the Bear Dance and curing. The style of singing is reminiscent of Plains groups. Singing and dancing for entertainment continue to be important. Rock art was another form of expression, and both pictographs (painted) and petrogylphs (pecked) of obvious Ute manufacture have been documented.

Medicine. Curing ceremonies attempted to drive evil forces from the body through songs, sucking tubes, and so on, rather than through the use of medicines. Herbal remedies were also applied, however, and medicinal powers were assigned to a number of plants. These, usually the leaves or roots, were pounded and boiled and the resulting potion drunk.

Death and Afterlife. Death was a time of community and individual loss and was formally observed by abstentions from certain behaviors and by acts such as hair cutting. Mourning lasted up to a year. Care was taken to ensure that the ghost of the deceased did not return, although it was generally held that the soul lingered near the body for several days. All souls went to an afterlife similar to this world. Burial and funeral customs included burning the house wherein death occurred and the destruction of most personal property, which sometimes included horses, dogs, and slaves. Bodies were washed, dressed, and wrapped and buried, extended, in a rock-covered grave in the mountains.


Callaway, Donald, Joel C. Janetski, and Omer C. Stewart (1986). "Ute." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 11, Great Basin, edited by Warren L. d'Azevedo, 336-367. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Conetah, Fred A. (1982). A History of the Northern Ute People. Edited by Katheryn L. MacKay and Floyd A. O'Neil. Salt Lake City, Utah: Uintah-Ouray Tribe.

Jorgensen, Joseph G. (1964). The Ethnohistory and Acculturation of the Northern Ute. Ph.D diss., Indiana University.

Smith, Anne M. (1974). Ethnography of the Northern Ute. Museum of New Mexico Papers in Anthropology, no. 17. Santa Fe: University of New Mexico Press.



views updated May 23 2018


UTE. Ute Indians are Southern Numic speakers of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Utes (from the Spanish "Yutas") call themselves Nuciu or Nuche, the People. When they first came in contact with Europeans, the Utes inhabited over 130,000 square miles of eastern Utah and western Colorado—environments ranging from the arid valleys and mountains of the Great Basin, to the eroded Colorado Plateau, to the alpine Rocky Mountains, to the high Plains of eastern Colorado. Eleven Ute bands included the Tumpanuwacs, Uinta-ats, San Pitches, Pahvants, and Sheberetches in Utah, and the Yamparkas, Parianucs, Taviwacs, Weeminuches, Moaches, and Kapotas in Colorado. These bands shared a common language and customs, traded and intermarried, but maintained no

larger tribal organization. Members traveled in local residence groups of from 50 to 100 people, with seasonal band gatherings for annual rituals like the spring Bear Dance, a world renewal ceremony (performed to ensure the continuation or rebirth of the world as they knew it). Leadership was chosen by proven ability and group consensus, with distinctions between civil, war, and hunt leaders emerging in the nineteenth century. Women maintained an informal but notable voice in local group decision making as a consequence of their subsistence contributions.

Ute subsistence systems were remarkably flexible and adapted to their varied environments. Families and bands moved through known territories taking advantage of the seasonal abundance of food and material resources. Men hunted deer, elk, buffalo, mountain sheep, rabbits, small mammals, and migratory waterfowl with bows and arrows, spears, snares, and nets. Women gathered seed grasses, piñon nuts, berries, yampa roots, and greens, and prepared foods for consumption or storage in parfleche bags or woven baskets. Colorado Utes focused more on large mammals, while Utah bands took advantage of spawning fish in Utah Lake and of grasshoppers and crickets, drying and storing both for trade and winter use. Ute families lived in brush shelters and hide tepees, wore both leather and woven fiber clothing, and used implements of bone, horn, stone, and wood.

Ute contact with Spanish colonists in New Mexico began in the 1610s and the Utes acquired horses by 1680. Especially among the Colorado Utes, horses increased their mobility, enabling them to focus on hunting buffalo and using their meat and hides. This reliance on buffalo led to incorporation of traits and material culture of the Plains Indians, whose society had traditionally relied on buffalo. By the nineteenth century, the Utes were respected raiders and middlemen in the southwestern horse and slave trade. Few Spaniards ventured into their territory so the Utes were able to remain free from colonial rule. Between 1810 and 1840, a growing number of fur trappers passed through Ute lands, but the full impact of Euro-American contact came with the arrival of Mormon settlers in 1847 and the Colorado gold rush of 1859.

As Mormon settlers took up residence in Utah, they disrupted Ute subsistence rounds and interfered with their slave trade. Two Ute uprisings—the Walker War (1853–1854) and the Black Hawk War (1863–1868)—were responses to this subsistence displacement, violence, and plans to remove Utah Utes to the two million acre Uintah Valley Reservation, established in eastern Utah in 1861. Between 1868 and 1877, battered Utah Utes moved to the reservation. During the same period, Colorado Ute bands confronted encroaching miners. Treaties in 1863 and 1868, and an 1873 agreement reduced their homelands to 11.5 million acres and established reservation agencies at Los Pinos (later Uncompahgre) and White River. In 1882, following a Ute uprising at White River Agency, the government forcibly removed White River Utes to the Uintah Reservation and Uncompahgre Utes to the adjoining two million-acre Ouray Reservation. In 1883, the government combined administration of the Uintah-Ouray Reservation. The Weeminuche Utes managed to avoid removal and retain the small Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, while the Moache and Kapota bands kept the Southern Ute Reservation in Colorado.

Between 1887 and 1934, Utes on the three reservations lost another 80 percent of their reservation lands through allotment and the sale of allotments, leaving them with 873,600 acres. Attempts to create a viable agricultural economy were largely unsuccessful. At the same time, Ute populations tumbled from approximately 11,300 in 1868, to 3,975 in 1880, to 1,771 Utes in 1930. Utes adopted the sun dance and peyotism to bolster their tribal identities, but internal tensions and conflicts with neighboring whites continued. Southern Ute factionalism led to settlement of the Allen Canyon and later White Mesa Ute communities in southern Utah, while Northern Utes at Uintah-Ouray terminated mixed-blood Utes in 1954 in an attempt to consolidate their cultural identity.

Since 1940, the Northern Ute, Southern Ute, and Ute Mountain Ute tribes have organized tribal governments and programs to protect their land and people. They have used settlements from successful court cases to repurchase alienated lands and establish tribal enterprises. Oil and gas exploration, mining, timber, livestock, and tourism have become their chief sources of income, but poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism are persistent problems. Enrolled Utes numbered 5,788 in 1995. Each tribe remains active in promoting Ute language, culture, and sovereignty.


Callaway, Donald, Joel Janetski, and Omer C. Stewart. "Ute." In Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant et al. Vol. 11: Great Basin, edited by Warren L. D'Azevedo. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1986.

Conetah, Fred A. A History of the Northern Ute People, edited by Kathryn L. MacKay and Floyd A. O'Neil. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Printing Services for the Uintah-Ouray Ute Tribe, 1982.

Delaney, Robert W. The Ute Mountain Utes. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

Jefferson, James, Robert W. Delaney, and Gregory C. Thompson. The Southern Utes: A Tribal History. Ignacio, Colo.: Southern Ute Tribe, 1972.

Simmons, Virginia McConnell. The Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 2000.

David RichLewis


views updated May 18 2018

Ute / yoōt/ • n. (pl. same or Utes ) 1. a member of an American Indian people living chiefly in Colorado and Utah. 2. the Uto-Aztecan language of this people.• adj. of or relating to this people or their language.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Ute Shoshonean-speaking tribe of Native North Americans. They were fierce, nomadic warriors, who engaged in warfare with other Native American tribes and hunted bison. Today, c.4000 live on reservations in Colorado and Utah.


views updated May 23 2018

ute / yoōt/ • n. inf. a utility vehicle: ordinary families buy pickups and sport utes.