American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Ouray

Title: Ouray (Ute tribal leader)
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Ouray ("The Arrow," "Willy"), who was Ute and Apache, became a major presence during treaty negotiations in present-day Colorado during the late nineteenth century. He served as a spokesman for the seven Ute bands and as a peace-maker during the Ute War of 1879.

Born in Taos, New Mexico, about 1820, Ouray's father, Guera Murah, was a Jicarilla Apache who had been adopted by the Utes; his mother was a Tabeguache Ute. Throughout most of his youth, Ouray worked for Mexican sheepherders and learned Spanish. As a young man, he became a noted warrior among the Tabeguache Utes (later called the Uncompahgres) during raids against the Sioux and Kiowas. Ouray also learned English and several Indian languages, thus making him a key figure in many negotiations in the American Southwest.

Ouray's son by his first wife was taken by the Sioux in a raid on a Ute hunting camp, and he was never able to recapture him. When his first wife died in 1859, Ouray married Chipeta, a Tabeguache woman. In 1860, after his father died, Ouray was appointed chief of his band and interpreter for the U.S. government. This appointment occurred in Washington, D.C., where he was awarded medals, titles, and a $1,000 annuity.

In 1863, Ouray helped negotiate the Treaty of Conejos, in which the Utes ceded all lands east of the Continental Divide. In 1867, he helped Christopher "Kit" Carson quell a Ute uprising led by Chief Kaniatse. By 1872, however, Ouray was leading resistance to the U.S. government's seizure of lands that previously had been reserved for the Ute people. Although he was generally patient, Ouray did lose his temper during these negotiations when a U.S. government official accused the Utes of laziness. Incensed at such a characterization, Ouray replied, "We work as hard as you do. Did you ever try skinning a buffalo?" (Johansen and Grinde, 1997, 276).

In 1873, Ouray and other Ute representatives met with a federal commission headed by Felix Brunot and were forced to compromise on the issue of land cessions. Pressured by the influx of miners and cattle owners, the Utes ceded an additional four million acres (the San Juan cession) for an annual payment of $25,000.

In 1876, when Colorado became a state, mining companies attempted to oust three White River Ute bands from their lands. "The Utes must go" became a political slogan among non-Native immigrants, in spite of the Utes' service as scouts for the U.S. Army and in state militias fighting other Native peoples. These tensions were compounded by the policies of a new Indian agent, Nathan Meeker, who arrived in 1878. In September 1879, Meeker directed the Utes to use parts of their land for farming. Canalla, brother-in-law of Ouray and a Ute shaman, protested the conversion of grazing lands to agriculture. Canalla challenged Meeker's decision and told him to leave the agency. Meeker proceded to request a detachment of 150 troops under Major Thomas T. Thorn-burgh to "pacify" the rebellious Utes. Shortly afterward, the Utes killed Meeker and seven other whites. Following subsequent bloody altercations, Ouray was able to secure a peaceful settlement because both sides respected him.

On August 27, 1880, soon after his return from Washington, D.C., Ouray died of Bright's Disease, an affliction of the kidneys, near Ignacio, Colorado. In 1925, he was reburied at Montrose, Colorado.

Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Johansen, Bruce E., and Donald A. Grinde, Jr. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Native American Biography. New York: Henry Holt.
 

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