Colorado Natives: The Ute People of Vail

Colorado Natives Ute People

For thousands of years, The Gore Creek Valley that includes the town of Vail was inhabited by the Ute People. The Ute were an indigenous group that lived in the Great Basin, primarily in what is now known as Utah and Colorado. In fact the name Utah is derived from this group of people. Those that lived where Vail is today spent their summers in the cool confines of the valley amid the mountain range they called the Shining Mountains. During the harsh winters they moved to the arid regions of Western Colorado. Representing an disparate collection of bands, the Ute were a nomadic people, going where the getting’s good. And the getting was good for quite some time. Until, of course, the European settlers arrived in the 19th century and the world as they knew it came to an end.

The Ute were exceptional artists and skilled warriors, a proud people of a direct bond with the planet. The Ute were master horsemen, a skill they acquired after meeting the first Spanish conquistadors in the early 17th century and adopting their mounts. The new technology of horseback riding dramatically changed Ute culture with the increased mobility it afforded and thus the increase in their range, which would often encroach into the zones other tribes. The Ute were constantly at war with many groups (mostly for gaining prestige, stealing horses, and revenge) including the Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Apache, Comanche, Navajo, and the Spanish. To prepare spiritually for battle, the warriors would participate in sweat lodge rituals, fast, and paint their horses and their faces with sacred symbolic designs. It’s said that the reason the Ute became aggressive and warlike in performing raids was based on the need to procure horses, as many neighbouring tribes like the Comanche had many horses and life is all about balance.

As was the case with many other Native American groups, the Ute’s experience with the settlers and the state system seeking to control the land was one of competition, confrontation and eventual coerced relocation to reservations. While many whites and natives got along well and respected each other, there’s always the bad banana in the bunch. Skirmishes and scraps would occur due to misunderstandings and cultural insensitivity, such as the European belief in private property contrasting the Native belief that we all belong to the Earth, for example.

The artwork the Ute produced was impressive and unusual, creating gorgeous ceremonial beaded items and shaving images into stretched and cured beaver hides. Other pieces of which the Ute were unique in producing included ceremonial pipes made from salmon alabaster and ceremonial rattles filled with quartz crystals sourced from the mountains that would produce flashes of light when shaken. These rattles were considered extremely powerful religious objects and were used to summon spirits. The Ute participated in sacred ceremonies using peyote to contact other realms and much of their art is influenced by the psychoactive and transcendent plant. Many Native American tribes have been using peyote or mescaline for at least 5,000 years, and it is known to trigger states of deep introspection and insight along with rich visual and auditory effects. Vivid indeed.

Today in Vail you can appreciate the Ute people through their artwork for sale and on display at various galleries. It’s important to give a moment of thanks for the people who came before us and remember their contributions. Heck, if your’e visiting during any time other than the depths of winter, why not explore the “Shining Mountains” on horseback. There are some excellent trail rides to take part in and experience the Vail valley from a more authentic and traditional perspective.

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