The original peoples of the High Rockies, and Colorado more broadly, have a long and storied history that spans thousands of years and contains complex relationships with this region. This year, the Herald is featuring a series on Indigenous histories of the High Rockies.
In this series, the Herald aims to expand readers’ knowledge of Indigenous peoples who have lived in the High Rockies for millennia, including their legacy of displacement and inequitable treatment following contact with European settlers.
After relocation to the reservations west of their traditional homelands in 1881, Northern Ute bands found a sparse habitat that reflected little of what they knew before.
The lands that made up the 17,000 square-mile Uintah and Ouray Reservation were selected by the U.S. government specifically for their lack of agricultural and economic potential, with agents describing the terrain as nothing more than a placeholder to keep the continent connected, according to reports from government explorations throughout Utah Territory.
Under the watch of the U.S. Army, Northern Utes were told to gather what they could carry and walk from Colorado into Utah Territory.
In a transcribed interview Ute elder Clifford Duncan detailed the experience his grandmother, who was among those relocated, shared with him.
“Many people cried and we came here as poor people because of that, and that’s what my grandmother would tell my mother. So today we are here,” Duncan told Forrest Cuch in the interview.
While the people were removed, the physical relocation did little to sever their cultural and spiritual ties to the region. Ceremonial sites, historic hunting grounds and artwork remain throughout western Colorado.
“There are names that are attached to some of the mountains and some of the places. So those places still remain there,” Duncan said in the same interview.
During the relocation, Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes, both of whom remain on reservation lands in the southwestern corner of the state, were not forced to move to the Utah reservation because they had not played an active role in the uprising against the White River Indian Agency.
These separate communities, Northern Utes, Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes, have remained as distinct cultures and identify separately.
The removal of Utes to Utah Territory laid the groundwork for increased economic development in Colorado. The area’s Indigenous people had been seen as an encumbrance to economic expansion, and their removal allowed for increased state and federal growth into formerly Ute-held land.
This expansion was propelled by the establishment of military infrastructure throughout the region, which allowed for the country’s expanding railroad system to make inroads into newly vacant lands.
In a 1994 study of the 1879 military operations against the Utes, Rusesel D. Santala addressed the outcomes of the military campaign, writing:
“The primary goal of the national strategy was the support of the settlement of the West, with the supplementary goal to support the national Indian policy. With these as the central themes of national strategy, the operational strategy to implement these objectives became the establishment of a series of forts that would quite naturally be complemented by the construction of adjoining railroads.”
While the economic opportunity in Colorado expanded, Northern Utes forced into Utah Territory were subjected to cultural and economic poverty.
“We don’t have that here, so our sacred plants are still over there, that’s what we going after. So that’s, that’s what was meant by those saying that we’ll come back and we’re poor,” Duncan said, explaining the cultural impacts of Utes’ removal.
Today, over half of Utes living on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation live below the poverty line, according to U.S. census data.
The impacts of forced relocation were felt beyond economic and cultural hardship, and a systematic attempt at cultural erasure took root in the form of Indian Boarding Schools.
In future installments of this series, the Herald will discuss the continued efforts undertaken by the U.S. government to marginalize and assimilate Colorado’s Indigenous people.