The Ute Tribe and their predecessors have called the Uncompahgre Valley home for thousands of years, and while much of their legacy exists in place names - Ouray, Pa-Co-Chu-Puk, and Tabeguache - there are places of tangible cultural value that dot the valley from north to south. Some celebratory, some tragic, yet each carrying an important piece of the story of the indigenous peoples of the Uncompahgre Valley.
The Ute Museum is a logical place to start. Artifacts, media, and classes abound, the museum an immersive experience that was created in conjunction with the tribes. Market days with wares from the Ute and other proximal tribes, Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta’s grave, and the indigenous plants garden near the river are just a few highlights. The museum is an intellectual haven for anyone looking to deepen their understanding of the people that nurtured this valley.
It is also through the museum that you can book tours of the Shavano Valley Petroglyphs. The site, one of hundreds dotting the plateau, is on private property and as such is one of the best preserved sites of early indigenous habitation in the area. While some of the art represents an esoteric and undecipherable prehistory, much of the petroglyphs are recent enough that they are intelligible to the Ute Tribe, leading to a uniquely transparent interpretation of much of the glyphs on the tour.
Being a nomadic tribe, the Ute bands of the Western Slope used sites such as Shavano as places of council and trade. One other such place, the Ute Council Tree in Delta, represents a more contemporary meeting spot. Tribal councils, including such reputed guests as Chipeta, graced the glade for the tree’s 200 year history. The old tree lost its last living limb in 2017, but the stump remains, a legacy of Ute connection with the area.
Nearby Confluence Park also features the beautiful Pow Wow Arbor, and the
historical reconstruction of Fort Uncompahgre. The word Uncompahgre itself, is variously translated as red lake or red water spring. Most conjecture suggests this is a reference to the highly mineralized hot springs that dot the valley and feed into the river. Throughout the state, from Idaho Springs to Pagosa Springs, hot springs were traditional
places of refuge for the native tribes. In the valley, the site of the current Wiesbaden resort in Ouray, is even said to be a spring in which Ouray himself spent time.
Near the current town of Colona, lie the remains of the Los Pinos Indian Agency. The Agency
represented a governmental infiltration of the Tabeguache and Uncompahgre bands, in their newly limited reservation on the Western Slope (following their steady displacement West across Colorado). As mining and migration from the east and south encroached, the tribe’s reservation continued to shrink through deceit and poor administration, leaving Los Pinos as one of the last strongholds of the tribe. By 1881, the tribe was forcibly displaced to the Utah Ute reservation, ending historical native habitation of the valley.
While the historical predominance of Utes in the area is past, their presence is still felt throughout the valley. Much of the beauty and historical legacy of this place is rooted in the Ute culture. Many of the foot trails and scenic highways still in use follow ancient Ute trails.
The Utes are not gone, but a living part of this place. From the foot of Thigunawat (Grand Mesa) in the north to the “Shining Mountains”of the San Juans in the south, the Ute spirit will always be a part of the Uncompahgre Valley.