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“The Utes”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

The Utes call themselves Nunt’z, “the people.” In former times, the Utes roamed in eleven bands across much of Colorado, Utah, and parts of Arizona and New Mexico. Today they live on reservations in southern Colorado and eastern Utah. As many as 25 percent live outside the reservations, mostly in large cities such as Denver, Phoenix, and Albuquerque. Utes speak a Shoshonean dialect of a Uto-Aztecan language.

Before the Utes started riding the horses that the Spanish brought to the Americas, they hunted and gathered in small, extended family groups. They hunted game such as elk, deer, antelope, and rabbits. They gathered plant food, especially seeds and berries. The Utes lived in brush shelters with pole frames as well as bison-skin tipis.

After horses brought by the Spanish spread to Ute lands in the 1700s, some Utes organized themselves in larger bands to hunt bison. The bison hunters used every part of the animal for meat and to make things like tipis, clothing, glue, and bowstrings.

In 1776, a Spanish expedition passed through Ute territory. Eventually, the Utes encountered Spanish slave traders, trappers, miners, ranchers and farmers. The encounters in the 1820s were peaceful, so the traders and travelers established the Old Spanish Trail across Ute lands on their journeys between New Mexico and California.

But the growing number of people coming into Ute territory and using the land and other resources led to conflicts. When they began to lose some of their land, the Utes harassed Spanish settlements in New Mexico. They joined neighboring tribes of Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Plains Indians in raiding for Spanish horses. All of the people in this area also captured women and children and traded them back and forth as slaves.

During the late 1800s, the Utes lost most of their traditional lands to incoming American settlers. They lost land in Colorado to gold and other mining interests. They lost land to Mormon farmers in Utah. Eventually, the US government set aside a little land for them to live on. In the early 1900s, the Utes regained and consolidated some of their lands. This land now makes up the Northern Ute, the Southern Ute, and the Mountain Ute reservations.