Aboriginally, Utes lived in most of present-day Utah, except the far western, northern, and southern parts; Colorado west of and including the eastern slopes of the Rockies; and the extreme north of New Mexico. Today, the three Ute reservations are in southwest Colorado, the Four Corners area, and north central Utah. From roughly 8,000 in the early nineteenth century, the Utes declined to about 1,800 in 1920. In 1990 approximately 5,000 lived on reservations, and roughly another 2,800 lived in cities and towns.
The Utes and their ancestors have been in the Great Basin for as many as 10,000 years. They lived along Arizona's Gila River from about 3000 to about 500 BCE. At that time, a group of them began migrating north toward Utah, growing a high-altitude variety of corn that had been developed in Mexico. This group, who grew corn, beans, and squash and who also hunted and gathered food, is known as the Sevier Complex. Another, related group of people, known as the Fremont Complex, lived to the northeast.
In time, the Fremont people migrated into western Colorado. When a drought struck the Great Basin in the thirteenth century, the Fremont people moved into Colorado's San Luis Valley, where they later became known as the Utes. They became one of the first mounted Indian peoples when band members escaped Spanish captivity and brought horses home in the midseventeenth century. Communal buffalo hunts began shortly thereafter. Mounted warriors brought more protection, and larger camps meant more centralized government and more powerful leaders as well as a rising standard of living. Utes also facilitated the spread of the horse to peoples of the Great Plains.
Utes believed that supernatural power was in all living things. Curing and weather shamans, both men and women, derived additional power from dreams. A few shamans, influenced by Plains culture, undertook vision quests.
One of the oldest of Ute ceremonies, the ten-day Bear Dance, was a welcome to spring. Bear is a mythological figure who provides leadership, wisdom, and strength. Perhaps originally a hunting ritual, the dance, directed by a dance chief and his assistants, signaled a time for courtship and the renewal of social ties. It was also related to the end of the girls' puberty ceremony. An all-male orchestra played musical rasps to accompany dancers. The host band sponsored feasting, dancing, gambling, games, and horse racing. The Sun Dance, of Plains origin, was held in midsummer.
Before the midseventeenth century, small Ute hunting and gathering groups were composed of extended families, with older members in charge. There may also have been some band organization for fall activities such as trading and hunting buffalo.
With the advent of horses, band structure strengthened to facilitate buffalo hunting, raiding, and defense. Each band now had its own chief, or headman, who solicited advice from constituent group leaders. By the eighteenth century, the autonomous bands came together regularly for tribal activities. Each band retained its chief and council, and within the bands, family groups retained their own leadership.
The Western Utes lived year-round in domed willow houses. Weeminuches used them only in the summer, and all groups also used brush and conical pole-frame shelters ten–fifteen feet in diameter, covered with juniper bark or tule. Sweat houses were of similar construction and heated with hot rocks. In the east, after the seventeenth century, people lived in buffalo (or elk) skin teepees, some of which were up to seventeen feet high. Bands generally regrouped into families to hunt and gather during the spring and summer. Important plant foods included seeds, pine nuts, yampa, berries, and yucca. Some southeastern people planted corn in the late prehistoric period. Some groups burned areas to encourage the growth of wild tobacco.
Buffalo were native to the entire area and were important even before the horse. Other important animal foods included elk, antelope (stalked or driven over cliffs), rabbit (hunted with throwing sticks or communally driven into nets), deer, bear, beaver, fowl, and sage hens. Meat was eaten fresh, sun-dried, or smoked. Coyote, wolf, and bobcat were hunted for their fur only.
Other important foods included crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts (dried with berries in cake form). Some western groups ate lizards and reptiles. Some bands also fished, especially in the west, using weirs, nets, basket traps, bow and arrow, and harpoons. Important fish included cutthroat trout, whitefish, chubs, and suckers.
Before the horse, warfare was generally defensive in nature. Utes became mounted raiders in the late seventeenth century. Their usual targets were Pueblo, Southern Paiute, and Western Shoshone Indians. Weapons included a three- to four-foot bow (chokecherry, mountain mahogany, or mountain sheep horn was preferred) and arrows. Eastern Utes also used spears as well as buffalo skin shields.
Some bands were allied with the Jicarilla Apaches and the Comanches against both the Spanish and the Pueblos. Utes had generally poor relations with the Northern and Eastern Shoshones, although they were generally friendly with the Western Shoshones and Southern Paiutes, especially before they began raiding these groups for slaves in the eighteenth century. Navajos were alternately allies and enemies. The eastern Utes observed ceremonies before and after raids.
Utes also raided Western Shoshones and Southern Paiutes for slaves (mostly women and children), whom they sold to the Spanish. Moreover, they were forced to defend some hunting territory against the Comanches (formerly allies) and other Plains tribes around that time. As a result of relentless Comanche attacks, the southern Utes were prevented from developing fully on the Plains. Driven back into the mountains, they lost power and prestige, and the northern bands, enjoying a more peaceful and prosperous life, increased in importance.
A Spanish expedition in 1776 was the first of a line of non-Native explorers, trappers, traders, slavers, and miners to make contact. Non-Natives established a settlement in Colorado in 1851, and U.S. Fort Massachusetts was built the following year to protect that settlement. Utes considered non-Native livestock grazing on their (former) land fair game. In the midst of growing conflicts, treaties (which remained unratified) were negotiated in the mid-1850s.
The flood of miners that followed the 1858 Rockies gold strikes overwhelmed the eastern Utes. At the same time, the Utes were allied with the Americans and Mexicans against the Navajos. Mormons, fighting the western Utes for land since the late 1840s, had succeeded by the mid-1870s in confining them to about 9 percent of their aboriginal territory. The United States created the Uintah Reservation in 1861 on land the Mormons did not want. They made most Utah Utes, whose population had been decimated, settle there in 1864.
In 1863, some eastern bands improperly signed a treaty ceding all bands' Colorado mountain lands. Five years later, the Eastern Utes, under Chief Ouray, agreed to move west of the continental divide, provided about 15 million acres was reserved for them. Soon, however, gold discoveries in the San Juan Mountains wrecked the deal, and the Utes were forced to cede an additional 3.4 million acres in 1873 (most of the remainder was taken in 1880). The U.S. government considered Ouray "head chief of the Utes," paid him an annual salary, and supplied him with expensive goods.
The Southern Ute Reservation was established on the Colorado–New Mexico border in 1877. At that time, the Mouache and Capote bands settled there, merged to form the Southern Ute tribe, and took up agriculture. Resisting pressure to farm, the Weeminuches, calling themselves the Ute Mountain tribe, began raising cattle in the western part of the Southern Ute Reservation (the part later called the Ute Mountain Reservation).
In the late 1870s, a new Indian agent tried to force the White River Utes to give up their traditional way of life and "become civilized" by setting up a cooperative farming community. His methods included starvation, the destruction of Ute ponies, and encouraging the government to move against them militarily. When the soldiers arrived, the Indians made a defensive stand and a fight broke out, resulting in deaths on both sides (including Agent Nathan Meeker and U.S. Army Commander Thomas Thornburgh). Chief Ouray helped prevent a general war over this affair. The engagement, subsequently called by whites the Thornburgh ambush and the Meeker massacre, led directly to the eviction of the White River people from Colorado.
By 1881, the other eastern bands had all been forced from Colorado (except for the small Southern and Mountain Ute Reservations), and the other eight bands, later known as the Northern Utes, were assigned to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northern Utah (the Uintah Reservation was expanded in 1882 to include the removed Weeminuche Band).
Government attempts to force the grazing-oriented Ute to farm met with little success, owing in part to a lack of access to capital and markets and in part to unfavorable soil and climate. Irrigation projects, begun early in the twentieth century, mainly benefited non-Indians who leased, purchased, or otherwise occupied Ute land. The government also withheld rations in an effort to force reservation Utes to send their children to boarding school. During the mid-1880s, almost half of the Ute children at boarding schools in Albuquerque died. In 1911, the Mountain Utes increased their acreage while ceding land that became Mesa Verde National Park.
The last traditional Weeminuche chief, Jack House, assumed his office in 1936 and died in 1971. Buckskin Charley led the Southern Utes from Ouray's death in 1880 until his own in 1936. His son, Antonio Buck, became the first Southern Ute tribal chair. During the 1920s and 1930s, Mountain Utes formed clubs to promote leadership and other skills. Disease remained a major killer as late as the 1940s.
By 1934, the Eastern Utes controlled about 0.001 percent of their aboriginal lands. In 1950, the Confederated Ute Tribes (Northern, Southern, and Mountain) received $31 million in land claims settlements. During the 1950s, the Ute Mountain people began to assume greater control over their own money, and mineral leases provided real tribal income. Funds were expended on a per-capita basis and invested in a number of enterprises, mostly tourist related. The 1960s brought federal housing programs and more land claims money, but the effectiveness of tribal leadership declined considerably. A group of mixed-bloods, called the Affiliated Ute Citizens, were legally separated from the Northern Utes in 1954.