Years ago, OC Rick told me about the best trip he ever did with his (then teen-aged) daughter. They drove down to the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation in Southwest Colorado and spent 2 days with a native guide touring old ruins and cliff dwellings. It sounded like a wonderful trip, and I thought, “I’ll have to do that with my kids someday…” Around May 1, I suddenly realized that “someday” was “now”, and we quickly planned a road trip down that way for Memorial Day weekend.
Tangent: My realization was spurred by the greater realization that the Trifecta, who will turn 10, 8 and 8 this summer are in the “Golden Window” of childhood. As a parent, raising your children goes through these 6 phases*:
**Why do we always have to say “gifted”, anyway? Why can’t we just say, “smart”?
With my kids firmly in the Golden Window, I knew the time for the trip was now.
Nested Tangent: Already, Bird Whisperer displays hints of Phase #4. He’s more likely to decline a Daddy-invite for a hike/outing/whatever than even a year ago, and he openly dissed the “Junior Ranger” program when we stopped by Hovenweep National Monument Monday on our way home.
Our weekend also included visits to ruins at both Mesa Verde and Hovenweep (pic left), but it was the Ute Mountain day that made the trip. But before I talk about our day on the res, I should explain a bit about the Utes. And before I talk about the Utes, I should explain a bit about Indians in general around the Four Corners region.
All About Indians
Side Note: I’m using the term “Indian”, not “Native American.” I know “Indian” is based on an error, but so is “American” with its undue credit to Amerigo Vespucci. I also find “native” patronizing, as it implies a somewhat static and limited perspective of peoples who participated in many significant historical migrations, some of which I’ll mention below. Of the Indians I’ve spoken with (admittedly not a large sample) I’ve heard more describe themselves as “Indian” than “Native American.”
A more correct approach might be to just refer to Indians by their specific tribe names, but most of the names we use for them- including “Navajo” and “Ute”- are names other tribes gave them. Most Southwestern tribes use a word for “people” to name themselves: “Dine” for the Navajo, “Nunt’z” for the Utes.
Most of the Indians around Four Corners can be grouped into one of three very broad categories. First are the Puebloans. Their ancestors have been in this part of the country the longest, and they appear to be descended from the so-called “Anasazi” who built the various stone dwellings in this part of the country between around 900 and 1300 AD.
Side Note: I recognize the term “Anasazi” is also somewhat out of favor. I believe the Park Service now prefers “Ancestral Peubloan”, but this seems a mouthful…
Second are the Athabaskans, who include the Navajo and Apache , and well as some smaller tribes (Mescalero, Chiricahua.) They’re “recent” immigrants to Southwest, having arrived around 1400 AD, and their languages show a close kinship to tribes in Western Canada.
Third are the “Numic-speaking” peoples, who include the Utes, Shoshone, Paiutes, Goshutes and others. It’s not clear exactly when these guys arrived , but there’s little archeological evidence for them around much before 1400 AD. The Numic-speakers ancestral homeland is thought to be further West, maybe somewhere around Death Valley. They’re part of a broader and much larger linguistic group called Uto-Aztecan, which includes lots and lots more Indians, including- as might be guessed- the ancient Aztecs*, as well as the Tarahumara, the legendary ultra-runners of Mexico’s Copper Canyon region.
*Also misnamed, as I discussed in this post.
Side Note: The Aztecs spoke a language called Nahuatl. It’s not clear how far back Nahuatl and the modern Ute language diverged, possibly sometime around the birth of Christ.
And while we’re on the topic, what’s with all the linguistic stuff? Why not look at DNA? Primarily because most tribes don’t like participating in DNA sampling efforts. There are a number of reasons for this, some of which are probably valid, but the topic is beyond the scope of this post.
OK, so what about the Utes?
All About The Utes
At the time of European contact, the Utes occupied most of Colorado and Utah, from the Front Range to the Wasatch. They weren’t any kind of organized geo-political state, but rather (at least) 7 distinct bands with common language and customs. In the 1600’s the Utes were possibly the first tribe to acquire horses and quickly become skilled mounted hunters and warriors. During this time they were frequent raiders against both Spanish-ruled Puebloan and Navajo communities, but also allied themselves from time to time with the Navajo to raid the Spanish/Puebloans.
Tangent: I’m fascinated by the Utes, for 2 reasons. First, I’ve lived the last 2 decades of my life on former Ute lands. My home in Colorado sat on the edge of a series of meadows (Evergreen Meadows) that were the site of regular Ute summer camps. And here along the Wasatch Front is where the Ute and Paiute ranges met.
The second reason is something I don’t know if anyone else ever noticed: the traditional range of the Utes coincides almost perfectly with the range of Gambel Oak. As longtime readers know, I’m fascinated by Gambel Oak, and over the past decade+ I’ve come to associate being around Gambel Oak with being “home.” I suspect the Utes did as well.
At the close of the 19th century, the Utes were confined to reservations. The largest today is the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Eastern Utah, North of the Book Cliffs, and this group is called the Northern Utes. The second is the Southern Ute Reservation, centered around Ignacio, CO, and this is the richest of the three, with substantial revenues from both gaming and minerals.
In 1897, the Weeminuche band of Utes split off from the Southern Utes and formed the Ute Mountain Reservation is the extreme Southwest corner of Colorado.
All About Ute Mountain Tribal Park
9 years later, Mesa Verde National Park was formed to protect the fabulous Anasazi ruins up on the mesa* (pic right). But the ruins aren’t restricted to the mesa; the whole area is thick with them, including the Ute Mountain Reservation immediately to the South. The park’s boundaries expanded southward early on as new archeological sites were identified and the original authorization for the park allowed for possible future expansions as far South as the Mancos River, well into the Reservation. In the 1960’s, Chief Jack House proposed the establishment of Ute Mountain Tribal Park, both to bring income to the tribe, but also to act as a possible buffer against further Southward expansion of Mesa Verde NP. The proposal was highly controversial within the tribe, but eventually came to pass, with tours beginning in 1981. Access within the park and to ruins is with by appointment, with a Ute guide only.
*Mesa Verde technically isn’t a “mesa”; it’s a cuesta, meaning that it’s steep on one side, but gently sloping on the other.
We met Saturday AM at the park headquarters (a converted service station.) Coincidentally, Memorial Day is the park’s “open house”, means that the tours are ½ price, and as a result a number of Cortez locals showed up.
Side Note: Prices for kids appear to be somewhat elastic. I was told $13 on the phone, then told $27 (adult price) when we showed up. We ended up settling on $8 each.
Our planned destination was a ruin called Porcupine House, probably the best-known site within the park. Our group numbered 20+, led by a very knowledgeable Anglo guide- let’s call him “Fred”- and a Ute ranger. We drove for an hour along unpaved roads in a tribal van, followed by 4 private vehicles. But after an hour we stopped and had a discussion. Rains the day/night before had been heavy, and the guide feared we wouldn’t make it. After general discussion and agreement among the group to take on an hour+ hike, we changed plans, and backtracked a bit to where we parked, hopped a fence and started hiking.
Our guide had visited the target site a couple of times previously, most recently several years earlier. He warned us before setting out that the site wasn’t “hardened,” meaning that it had never been documented or surveyed by archeologists and he cautioned us on the steps and care we’d need to take in visiting it. We began descending a broad draw, hopping a few more fences, before entering the head of a narrow canyon. The “trail” was long since overgrown, and for the next almost 2 hours we bushwhacked down the overgrown canyon, the guide pausing repeatedly to point our recent bear and cougar tracks.
Side Note: I’m not giving explicit directions, since you can’t visit the site unguided anyway. If you’re curious, it’s situated in a tributary of a tributary of Johnson Canyon, which is in turn a tributary to Mancos Canyon. The location is on the reservation, but actually outside of the tribal park.
We finally reached the site and spent another brushy 20 minutes or so scrambling up the side of the canyon to the ruins at the base of the cliffs. The site consists of several rooms, probably constructed around 1050-1100AD, in impressive condition, given that no reconstruction or stabilization has occurred. The site is beautiful and historic, but to an untrained eye not much different than the other 100+ sites in the area. As we examined the site, Fred told us what makes it so unique within the park, and the region as a whole.
The masonry of Mesa Verde and nearby sites, such as within the Tribal Park, Hovenweep, and Canyon of the Ancients, is of a distinctive, large-blocked “Mesa Verde” style (Pueblo III.)
There are of course many other ruins and cliff dwellings throughout the Southwest, built along some different styles. One of the best known, though slightly earlier styles, is “Chacoan”, named after Chaco Canyon in Northwest New Mexico.
Chacoan masonry uses more small blocks interspersed with large blocks, making it distinctively different from the Mesa Verde style. The site Fred led us to was built in the Chacoan style, the only such structure he’s aware of in the entire greater Mesa Verde region.
We also saw a fair amount of rock art within the park. These figures, painted in red ochre were adjacent to (and probably contemporary with) the site we visited, and we saw numerous later drawings by Utes both on the hike as well as on the drive in.
The hike back out was easier, as we wisely forsook the “trail” stuck to the bottom gully. The Twins led the way, blazing ahead, their small bodies easily twisting through and around vegetation the adults struggled with. That evening we camped on the reservation, in the otherwise-unoccupied “campground” along the Mancos River. We saw and heard no one and nothing except for the flow of the river and the light patter of rain throughout the night, dozens of hidden ruins in the hills and canyons above us.