Before they were marched out of Western Colorado in the 1880s, the Utes had spent some 10,000 summers in the Crystal River Valley, home to the Redstone Historical Society (RHS) since 2001. RHS invited C. J. Brafford, director of the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, to talk about the present, as well as the past, of Colorado’s longest continuing inhabitants, at the society’s annual meeting on June 26.
“My presentation is to create cultural awareness, and to be mindful that the Utes, who call themselves Nuuchi — are still here,” says Director Brafford, a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux. By “here,” Brafford does not mean Redstone; one Ute reservation is in Utah, and two are in southwest Colorado. The last home of Chief Ouray, who was part Ute, serves as a portion of the Ute Indian Museum, and the grave of Ouray’s wife Chipeta is on the museum’s grounds. RHS’s program about the Utes is reportedly its first on the topic and is open to the public.
“I’ve been telling the Redstone Historical Society that the story of the Crystal River Valley didn’t start with J.C. Osgood,” the coal and steel magnate who founded the company town of Redstone in 1889, says RHS Board Member Larry K. Meredith. “It’s embarrassing that this will be the first time the society focuses on the Utes in our history.” Meredith moved to Redstone five years ago from Gunnison. His lifetime affinity for Ute culture led him to write the novel “This Cursed Valley” about white miners who moved to the Valley following the Utes’ forced removal, and a parting holy man’s eternal damnation of the new arrivals and their enterprises.
Whether legend or not, the curse seems a response to Colorado Governor Fredrick Pitkin’s repeated promises to “rid the state of the Ute menace.” Emotions boiled over following the 1879 Ute uprising at the White River Indian Agency near present-day Meeker, which resulted in the killing of U.S. Major Thomas Thornburgh, 13 of his troops, Agency Head Nathan Meeker and 11 of Meeker’s white, male associates. Utes also kidnapped Meeker’s wife and daughter and held them for three weeks before returning them and other captives unharmed. Meeker had aroused the Utes’ anger, in part, by forcing them to take up farming, which had never been part of their culture.
As nomads who traveled on foot and then by horse after Spanish contact in the 1600s, the Utes left few made items in the places they lived. Depending on the season and the game they hunted, the Utes moved between higher and lower elevations. Many of their trails are still traveled, unknowingly, by contemporary residents of these valleys.
“The landscape of sacred Mother Earth tells their story, which the Utes believe will never end,” says Brafford.
The annual meeting on June 26 will take place behind the Redstone Inn at 2 p.m. It is free to members of the society, and all interested individuals are invited. There will be a cash bar and other refreshments. Learn more at historyredstone.org/ute-indian-presentation/