Native Americans of Colorado

The First Discoverers of the West

Colorado Native Americans were the very first people to inhabit the area. They lived in the territory for thousands of years being hunting and gathering tribes. The first Native Americans were prehistoric and were called Paleo-Indians..  They lived before the printed word and knowledge of these people come from the archeologists who have excavated known sites.

Excavations have shown the lost tribe, the Anasazi Indians, who vanished without a trace, lived in the four corners region of Colorado. Many other sites have been found that were ceremonial grounds and burial grounds of many different tribes of the area. Pottery, hunting tools, arrowheads, and such have been unearthed all over the state.

I became interested in Native Americans in the area soon after moving to our place in the shadow of Pikes Peak. I soon discovered that our property was part of ceremonial grounds for the Ute Indians hundreds of years ago.  This information has set me off in the direction of history that you will read about later on.

For instance, the Utes communicated, prayed, and healed the sick using Native Scarred Trees. The prominent Colorado Native Americans are the Navajo, Ute, and Cheyenne-Arapahoe Indians. We find the Navajo in the southwest corner of Colorado, the Utes in the Pikes Peak area and most of Colorado, and the Cheyenne and Arapahoe on the Colorado plains.

Very proud people and rich in their history, each tribe has brought its own culture to Colorado and you can find it in the areas where they inhabited. And, unfortunately, as with all areas of the old west, Indians were in the way of the western migration and settlement.  They had to go.   This was a horrible time.  These people were the first to settle our country, hence the name Native Americans.

Normally, peaceful people, they would fight for the land that was being taken from them.  Wouldn’t you? So many atrocities were committed against these noble people and all they wanted to do was live in peace. The worst crime against Native Americans in Colorado was the Sand Creek Massacre, which we’ll look at later on.

Relegated to reservations and living conditions worse than slums, the Native Americans still survived. Many descendants of these tribes still call Colorado home.  And a few times a year they get together and put on re-enactments of happier times in their history.

So, let’s get started on a journey into another time and learn about the original inhabitants of Colorado.

Anasazi Indians

The People Who Vanished

The Anasazi Indians lived in the four corners region of Colorado. Something very strange is connected to them. Let’s start out with the discovery of the ancient ruins of these Native American people in 1882.

A rancher named Benjamin Alfred Wetherill had been talking to other ranchers in the area and was told of native artifacts in the Mancos Canyon in southwestern Colorado.

Mr. Wetherill had always been interested in Native American culture and had found pottery and such on his property, but when he heard about what was found in southwest Colorado, he set out on horseback to see for himself.

Arriving in Mancos Canyon, he didn’t see anything right away.  As he moved on, something caught his eye at the rim of a cave. He climbed the slope and entered the “cave”.  The walls were man-made and painted. Pottery, flint chips, and clothing were discovered.  But where had these people gone?  More importantly, why had they gone?

Anasazi Indians:
courtesy of Mesa Verde National Park

These “caves” were actually apartments that housed 150 rooms. It was the only Native American archeological discovery that produced more than petroglyphs on the walls or arrowheads and tools. The apartments were rock houses built right into the cliffs.  More of these cliff dwellings were discovered in the canyons of the mesa. Some were two and three stories high and had been built with exacting precision. It was about 550 AD when the Anasazi Indians started to build their homes.  Mr. Wetherill discovered them about 1300 years later.

The Anasazi Built Homes in the Cliffs of Mountains

Let’s look at what is known of these vanishing people. The name Anasazi is Navajo for “the ancient ones.” Mr. Wetherill’s findings were the first archaeological collections but other native tribes in the area had known about the cliff dwellings for centuries. They considered them forbidden and avoided dwellings.  The Native Americans of the area have never given a reason why this was.

Positive answers as to why the Anasazi Indians disappeared have been lost due to scavengers looting the cliff dwellings and making off with artifacts after Mr. Wetherill’s discovery.

However, in 1906, the U.S. Government established the Mesa Verde National Park, to protect the dwellings from further vandalism. Just a note: The Mesa Verde National Park is the only national park that has human culture as its main theme. Establishing it allowed scientists to come into the park and continue with their investigation of the native people who once lived here.

My husband and I have visited the national park over the years.  It is a very quiet place.  So quiet that there are no birds to be seen or heard singing. When you close your eyes, the wind blows over your face and you feel a sense of sorrow coming from the area.  Could the wind be carrying the spirits of these people that once were thriving here?

It is beautiful.  To see the construction that has lasted for centuries and where native people lived and worked all those many years ago is fascinating.

So over the years, the mystery slowly unraveled.  Keep in mind that there is no factual evidence as to the disappearance, just what scientific detectives have pieced together. It seems that the weather, location, and the Anasazi Indians’ lifestyle may have lead to their disappearance. Mesa Verde is thought to be first settled in 1 AD.  By 1300 the people vanished from the area.

The earliest Native Americans were nomads, following the herds of deer and buffalo and gathering plants and berries. This took place on the valley floors.  Farms were established and crops were raised. About 550 AD the Anasazi moved from the valley to the mesa were it was cooler in the summer. They found that the mesa had better soil for growing their crops.  Forests were available for making tools and providing logs for fires.

About 1200 AD, the Anasazi moved into the caves.  No one knows why they moved from the mesa into the cliff dwellings.  There is speculation. * The mesa was becoming too crowded;

  • More land was needed for growing crops;
  • The caves offered protection from the elements;
  • Maybe another tribe was threatening them and the caves were safe and gave a good vantage point to spot invaders.

They only lived in the cliff dwellings for about 100 years. More speculation occurs when you look at their disappearance. Did they leave because of the changing weather? (Global warming issues in the year 1200). According to scientists, there was a drought in 1276 and for years after, there was little snow or rain. The crops failed. Maybe the population was becoming too large, as evidence by the bigger dwellings that were built.

They may have been threatened by outsiders.  Skeletons have been found in the cliff dwellings that had fractures and holes in the skulls. Modern scientists have come to the conclusion that the changing natural conditions of the area led to the disappearance of the Anasazi. It has been speculated that the tribe moved to the south and integrated with the Pueblo people in New Mexico. Whatever the reason, we will never know what really happened to the Mesa Verde cliff dwellers.

Ute Indians

The Ute Indians have probably lived in Colorado some 1500 years before the Spanish explorers first arrived in the territory that is now Colorado. There isn’t much known about the inner workings of their culture, but what we do know is that they were a small band of people who were primarily food gatherers and hunters of small animals. The Ute Indians did not live in tribes like other Native Americans, but in what is called extended families. The larger groups of people related to each other would get together in the spring for their annual ceremony.

After the annual meeting, they would split up and go to the mountains for the summer and the plains or high plateaus for the winter. A typical Ute family would consist of a man, wife, their parents, children, married children, and grandchildren.  At times there would be a widowed relative, such as a sister or brother of the man or wife living with the family.

It was hard to find food for these many people in a family.  The men spent most of their time hunting and fishing.  They would clear the land for camp, make tools and hunting weapons. The women would bring in wood and water, make clothes, cook, tan hides, make cooking utensils, put up the tipis, and gather nuts and berries. The older children or grandparents would watch the younger children.

Age is respected in the Native American culture and children would usually pay more attention to a grandparent or older relative than to their parents.
The “Old People” were the wise ones.  The grandfather would know when the fish would come in the spring and where the deer trails were.

Grandmother spent years gathering berries and knew when they would be ripe to pick. The old people knew the proper ceremonies so the families would be safe, the game, nuts and berries would be plentiful. Children were so important to the Utes that they had separate names for each growth period in a child’s life.  They were a happy bunch of kids while they were growing up.

The children were never spanked or badly punished.  A word or scolding was the worst treatment they received. When the children became teenagers, the hard work began.  They were considered adults and were expected to do the job of an adult of the family according to their sex. The Ute Indians left their winter camps once a year for a holiday event called the Bear Dance. Usually, mid-March when the spring thunder rumbled, many families came together for several days to celebrate.

The Bear Dance ceremony was in conjunction with the bear waking up from hibernation.  This is the explanation from an old Ute man:

“When bear wakes up, he’s weak, he needs food, and he doesn’t see well.  But when they hold the dance, it helps him get out, because the helpers say to the dancers, ‘Get out and dance, you, because bear is waking up and that woman wants you to dance with her’.”

The dance lasted several days and ended in a large feast.  It was a great time to see other families and visit, get the latest gossip and stories, and a courting time for the young folks.

After the Bear Dance, there was also the Round Dance, that drove out illness and ensures the health of other families for the coming year. The ceremony is one of the few things that did not change after the Utes met the white man. The Ute Indians would walk everywhere.  Hunting, traveling, going to ceremonies, etc. The horse wasn’t introduced to them until the Spanish started exploring the region.

The Spanish needed people to work for them so they would trade the Utes horses for children or young adults in their families.  The girls would be trained to do housekeeping and the boys would take care of sheep and cattle the Spanish owned.

The horse made all the difference in the world to the Utes.  Now they could travel quickly from place to place.  They could go hunting further than their immediate area would allow.

Buffalo was discovered by the Utes and changed their lives.  Old ways of living were replaced by new ones. They still lived in family groups, but when the buffalo ranged into large herds in the summer, the Utes came together for hunting.

Huge amounts of hides and meat were transported by the horse to camps.  The meat was dried for eating during the seasons and the hides were used for clothing and shelter. Along with the increased mobility of the horse came wars with other tribes.  This was because of trespassing onto their land during buffalo hunts.

More families were camping close to each other and therefore conflicts would arise.  Strong young men would tout themselves as leaders of the camp, the hunt or of war. The women were an important part of the family society.  During wars, they stayed a safe distance, packed and ready to take off to safety.

But when raids were made onto their land, then they went into battle like the men. They were armed and wore a full battle dress.

The main job of the women in war was to scalp the dead enemy and take their possessions. Women took part in the war dance after a successful campaign.  All possessions that were taken from the battle were shared throughout the band, except scalps.  These were sewn onto the shirts of the men who killed them in the battle.

Eventually, the Ute Indians started to take on the traditions of the Plains Indians. But they only integrated those items of the culture that fit into their existing society. The Utes had adapted to many challenges throughout their lives. The coming of the horse, guns, and integration with the Plains Indians.

Through all of this, they remain an integral part of Colorado history.

Cheyenne-Arapahoe Indians

The Cheyenne-Arapahoe Indians were known as the horsemen of the plains and carved out a niche in the eastern part of Colorado.

Being driven further westward by the expansion of the white man’s interests, these Plains Indians helped the tribes already in Colorado with a new way of life by introducing the horse to others.

These two tribes of Native Americans made a lasting impression on the plains of Colorado. They had a very strong sense of loyalty to all members of their “family”.

Arapahoe and Cheyenne were very similar in their beliefs and way of life but separate from each other. The Cheyenne-Arapahoe Indians developed as a separation of one tribe.

The Arapahoe became a northern band and the Cheyenne were the southern band. Both had lived together, but each band’s life was their own.  The Cheyenne and Arapahoe went to war and hunted together.

The pecking order of these two tribes was similar.   Both had leaders for war and peace; they raised their children in the same way; sometimes the tribes would intermarry, making a more solid allegiance between the two. With the horse, came freedom of travel.  Hunting food, such as buffalo, was much easier with four legs than just two.

All seemed well, but with the coming of the white man, the Indian’s lives began to change. The Cheyenne and Arapahoe got along well with the first white men traveling into the state. These were trappers and were only interested in beaver, not the buffalo. The Plains Indians were very amused by the frantic and excited white men at the time of the gold rush.

Everyone seemed to get along up to a point.  When white farmers moved into the plains of Colorado, there was a major problem for the Indians. The white farmers fenced and plowed the land and destroyed buffalo migration patterns. Add to that a clash of cultures and trouble was inevitable. The Sand Creek Massacre was a hostile act of the whites against the Cheyenne, who were trying to live peaceably while the white man took their land.

After the massacre, the Indians began attacking settlers on the high plains of Colorado.

A town called Julesburg on the Platte River was burned over and over; a battle at a place called Beecher’s Island; and the final battle against the Cheyenne and Arapahoe was at Summit Springs near present-day Sterling.

With “Buffalo Bill” Cody as their guide, eight companies of the Fifth Cavalry set out to find and destroy a large group of Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Sioux.

On the morning of July 11, 1869, Captain Luther North came upon a village of about 85 Indian lodges. He and his men charged the camp, killed around 60 Indians, took two dozen prisoners and stole hundreds of horses and belongings of the Indians. So just like the other Native Americans in Colorado, the Cheyenne-Arapahoe Indians were eventually pushed further off their lands until all that was left for them was a tiny reservation on which to live in poverty and captivity.