The Ute Indians ranged across much of the northern Colorado Plateau beginning at least 2000 years B.P. The very name Ute, from which the name of the state of Utah was derived, means "high land" or "land of the sun." The Ute language, Southern Numic, belongs to the Numic group of Uto-Aztecan languages shared by most of the Great Basin tribes. The Utes, however, included mountain-dwellers as well as desert nomads.
Bands in the mountainous eastern regions subsisted by hunting large game and by fishing, while bands in the arid western and southern regions adapted to their environments by wandering widely and taking advantage of the periodic abundance of food and material resources in different ecozones. The arrival of Utes in the Four Corners area came later, but most anthropologists agree that by 1500 A.D. they were well-established in the region.
Present-day Utes occupy a tiny fraction of their former territories. The Northern Ute live on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation near Fort Duchesne in northeastern Utah. The Southern Ute live on a reservation in the southwestern corner of Colorado near Ignacio. The Ute Mountain Ute are descendants of the Weminuche band who 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.
Prior to their acquisition of horses the Ute wandered on foot, moving through known hunting and gathering territories on a seasonal basis. Men hunted deer, antelope, buffalo, rabbits, and other small mammals and birds. Women gathered seed grasses, piñon nuts, berries, roots, and greens in woven baskets, and processed and stored meat and plant materials for winter use. Ute families lived in brush wickiups and ramadas in the western and southern areas and used hide tepees in the eastern reaches of their territory. Of all the Ute bands, only the Pahvant were cultivating food plants at early contact.
Once they obtained Spanish horses and livestock from the Pueblo peoples of northern New Mexico, the Ute began to raise horses, cattle and sheep, and to begin raiding and trading. In eastern areas in particular, Utes became respected warriors and important participants in the southwestern slave and horse trade. In the north, they remained largely independent of colonial control until the arrival of Mormon settlers, who pressured the Utes to settle down and farm.
Believing that staying in one place meant certain starvation, the Northern Utes resisted agrarian settlement. As the Mormons appropriated more and more of their land, the Utes retaliated with a series of raids against isolated Mormon settlements. The Walker War (1853-54) signaled the beginning of the "open hand, mailed fist" Indian policy of Brigham Young feeding when possible, fighting from necessary. In 1869 the northern Utes were forcibly removed to the Uintah Valley Reservation. They were joined by the White River Utes from Colorado in 1881, and by the Uncompahgre Utes to the adjoining Ouray Reservation in the following year.
In 1905 the U.S. Government allotted new reservations and opened the remainder for white entry. Each Ute received an 80- to 160-acre plot for farming and access to a communal grazing district. Allotment reduced Ute land holdings by over 85 percent and limited the potential for a successful livestock industry. Construction of expensive irrigation projects did little to improve Ute farming and led to extensive leasing and alienation of yet more land.
Increased oil and gas development on reservation lands in the 1970s and early 1980s benefited the Northern Utes in the form of jobs and severance taxes. They also received money and stored water in return for the diversion of their watershed runoff for the Central Utah Project.
After the Mexican War, Americans recruited Southern Utes in their wars with the Navajos. The Utes saw it as an opportunity to improve their economic standing, especially since their eastern territories in Colorado has been invaded by gold miners in 1859. The Weeminuche, with other bands, joined in extensive forays which caused most of the Navajos in Utah to flee south. Ironically, in 1868 both tribes reaped the same dismal reward removal to the reservation.
The Southern Ute reservation of 56 million acres comprised approximately the western third of present-day Colorado. However, continuing pressures from white settlement to the east, the establishment of four major livestock companies in southeastern Utah, and Navajo expansion from the south, led to sporadic conflicts for which the Utes usually suffered loss of land. A series of treaties saw a Ute land base of 56 million acres shrink to less than ten percent of that. By 1934, the Southern Ute Reservation in Colorado consisted of a strip of arid, desolate land 15 miles wide and 110 miles long.
A bright spot in the Southern Ute story began in the 1950s when Ute families began to move onto White Mesa eleven miles south of Blanding in southeastern Utah. Here in the sagebrush they began to build a community of frame houses. Electricity arrived in 1964, and bus service delivered children to the Blanding schools. Today the community has a population of about 350 people and 100 homes, and is governed by the White Mesa Ute Council. Employment is most common in service industry jobs in the schools and motels, but jobs are also found in farming projects and at the highly successful casino at Towaoc on the reservation.
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Callaway, D., J. Janetski, and O. C. Stewart. 1986. Ute. In: W. L. D'Azevedo, editor. Handbook of North American Indians. Great Basin, Volume 11. Smithosonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Christy, H. A. 1978. Open hand and mailed fist: Mormon-Indian relations in Utah, 1847-52. Utah Historical Quarterly 46 (Summer 1978).
Conetah, F. A. 1982. A History of the Northern Ute People. Uintah-Ouray Ute Tribe, Uintah-Ouray Reservation, Utah.
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