Aspen exhibit to focus on history of Utes |

Aspen exhibit to focus on history of Utes

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
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ASPEN – Today, locating more than a handful of Native Americans living and working in Aspen could prove difficult.

But long before the silver prospectors, settlers, industrialists, war veterans, ski-resort pioneers, hippies, real estate developers and Wall Street survivors arrived, the land upon which the city of Aspen sits, and the Roaring Fork Valley in general, served the needs of the Utes.

The tribe’s name can be found throughout the city at places like the gear and clothing shop Ute Mountaineer, the Ute City Restaurant – even Ute Place, a “beautifully landscaped subdivision,” according to a real estate brochure. However, starting June 12, the tribe itself and its colorful but often troubled past will be the subject of a serious exhibit and special programs being put together by the Aspen Historical Society.

“Seasons of the Nuche: Transitions of the Ute People” will cover a lengthy period of the tribe’s history, from the years before the Utes made contact with Spanish explorers in the late 16th century all the way up to today. The exhibit replaces “Out of Your Mind, Body and Spirit: Voices of Aspen, 1975,” which ended last month at the society’s Wheeler/Stallard Museum.

“It’s going to be a little bit of a step up for us,” said Lisa Hancock, curator of collections for the historical society. She explained that the exhibit will mark the first time the museum has relied on loaned artifacts from outside sources, including the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig, the Denver Public Library and other facilities.

“We’ve even hired a consulting curator to help us through it,” Hancock said. “It’s basically a topic that we’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time. And now we’re finally feeling like we’re capable of doing it well, so it’s time for us to do it.”

For many centuries – until the U.S. government and westward expansion combined to force them into reservations in the late 19th century – the Utes were a loosely allied, nomadic, hunter-gatherer tribe stretching across much of eastern Utah and western Colorado and parts of New Mexico and Wyoming.

Made up of many different bands, they shared a common language and similar skill sets. Their heritage remains intact today, with more than 10,000 descendants living on or near three different reservations based in southwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah.

Miners began arriving in what is now Aspen during the winter of 1879 – despite Colorado Gov. Frederick Pitkin’s warning of a Ute uprising. The small community was first named Ute City and was renamed Aspen the following year.

But for hundreds of years before the late-19th century silver boom that would forever change the face of the area, a Ute band known as the Tabeguache used it as spring and summer hunting grounds. Hancock said the Tabeguache’s territory generally stretched from an area near Pike’s Peak to the Roaring Fork Valley.

Utah History to Go, a website operated by the state of Utah, briefly describes the band of Utes that roamed the area: “Dwelling in the high mountains of what is now central Colorado were the people known as the Taviwach or Tabeguache. Later they came to be called the Uncompahgre. They had few contacts with other tribes.”

The famous “Meeker Massacre” in late September 1879 led to the demise of the Utes in Colorado. In that incident, Nathan Meeker – a U.S. agent for the White River Indian Agency – some of his employees and several U.S. soldiers were killed by Utes following a period of tense relations between the Utes and Colorado settlers.

In the weeks that followed, the uprising was put down with the arrival of more soldiers. The next year, Congress passed the Ute Removal Act, and the Uncompahgre and other Ute bands in northern Colorado were sent to live on a previously established reservation in eastern Utah. Today, the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, which has its headquarters in Fort Duchesne, Utah, a small town located on U.S. Highway 40 between Roosevelt and Vernal, has the largest population of the three Ute reservations in Colorado and Utah.

Hancock said the historical society received assistance for the exhibit from reservation officials and the Ute Bulletin, a weekly newspaper in Fort Duchesne. She said the intent of the Aspen exhibit and the programs is to educate and not meant to make anyone feel guilty about the events that led to the removal of the Utes in northern Colorado or the U.S. treatment of Native Americans in general.

“Our theme sentence is, ‘The Ute people strive to retain their culture as they adapt and persevere in the American West.’ We talked about this sentence for about two months. You don’t want to paint the picture of what happened to them lightly, and yet you don’t want to paint the picture of their culture being only historic,” Hancock said.

More details about the upcoming exhibit and related programs will be released by the historical society in the weeks leading up to the June 12 start. The exhibit’s grand opening is scheduled for June 19.

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