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 summer, 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.
This week, in a break from the strictly chronological telling of Indigenous histories of the region, the Herald examines the lasting legacy of names from the Ute people throughout Colorado and the American West.
For as long as Utes have inhabited the High Rockies and the surrounding territories, they have ascribed names to prominent landmarks, trails and geographic features from present day Utah to the eastern plains of what is now called Colorado.
“Early explorers and surveyors in western Colorado often left writings which remind contemporary readers that these men did not come upon a nameless landscape,” Sam Burns wrote in a 2004 ethnography on Ute people, “The Ute relationships to the lands of West Central Colorado.” “The Utes naturally had names to refer to the rivers, passes, and other geographical features of their world.”
When settlers arrived, partly as a result of language rifts, partly as a tool of colonization, many of the named features within Ute lands were changed or disregarded, and many people and features with names unknown to white settlers were given anglicized designations.
Perhaps most prominently, the name “Ute” itself is one imposed on the Indigenous people of this region by European settlers.
The first recorded use of the name “Ute” appeared in Spanish documents around 1626 following expeditions into Indigenous territories of the mountain west and contact with a variety of Indigenous communities. The Spanish, throughout the seventeenth century, referred to all Indigenous people they encountered in this region as “Yuta Indians.”
From the October 1954 “Utah Historical Quarterly”, “The Ute, Southern Paiute, and Chemehuevi (the southernmost of the Southern Paiute) were all contacted by the Spanish, and until about 1750 all were called Yuta Indians.”
Nuche, as Indigenous people of the region have long self-identified, translates roughly to “the mountain people.” Throughout the remainder of this series, the Herald will refer to the Ute interchangeably by their self-designation, Nuche, in recognition of the colonial imposition of the name “Ute.”
This practice of imposed naming carried over into designations of Nuche bands by the U.S. government, historians and anthropologists, who frequently ascribed titles to bands of Nuche people based on their primary food sources and geographic location.
“They weren’t using the categories that the people used themselves,” James Goss wrote in “Ute Indian Arts and Culture from Prehistory to the New Millenium,” of settlers who would seek to describe Nuche people and practices.
The Spanish name Yuta was eventually anglicized to Ute, and ultimately ascribed to the modern-day state of Utah.
In many places throughout Colorado, the legacy of Nuche naming practices persists, either through the places retaining their Nuche-given names, or by being designated with words from the Nuche language after colonization.
In the Arkansas Valley, two 14ers carry Nuche names: Tabeguache Peak and Mount Shavano.
Tabeguache Peak was named after the band of Ute people identified as living in the area. The original Nuche word from which it was derived, mogwtavungwantsingwu, translates roughly to “cedar-bark, sunny slope people,” according to Carol Patterson’s description in “Concepts of Spirit in Prehistoric Art according to Clifford Duncan, Ute Spiritual Elder.”
The Tabeguache, which was the largest of the Nuche bands, consisted of 500-1,000 people in extended family groups who lived and migrated throughout the Arkansas and San Luis valleys and north into present day South Park, according to Patterson.
To the south, Mount Shavano, Tabeguache’s slightly higher neighboring peak, bears the name of a Tabeguache leader. Shavano was a well-documented leader within the Tabeguache band as a result of his regular interactions with European settlers in the area.
To the southwest, Cochetopa Pass outside of Saguache take its name from the Nuche word which translates to “buffalo gate.” Saguache, another derivative of a Nuche-language word, translates to “green place,” so named for a spring that allowed for an oasis in the otherwise dry land. The town of Saguache now sits at this site in the San Luis Valley.
The list of Nuche-derived names across the region and state is extensive and could go on. And though many names given to locations throughout Colorado by its original inhabitants have been erased, some names, or derivatives thereof, are still used today.