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UTE INDIANS-SOUTHERN

By Robert S. McPherson

A Southern Ute, c. 1880

The Southern Utes are comprised of three bands. Historically, the eastern-most band was the Muache, who lived in the Denver area; the Capote ranged through the Sangre de Cristo Mountails of Colorado and south to Taos New Mexico; the Weeminuche hunted and gathered on lands bounded by the Dolores River in eastern Colorado, while in Utah the Colorado River to the north and west, and the San Juan River to the south marked the boundaries of their territory. All of these groups were highly mobile and visited far into the Great Basin, throughout the Colorado Plateau, and onto the Plains. Although their name has a variety of spellings in historical documents -- Wimonuntci, Weminutc, Guibisnuches, Guiguimuches, Wamenuches, and others -- the Weeminuche Utes were the ones that dominated southeastern Utah.

Anthropologists argue as to when the Utes arrived in the Four Corners area. Some believe there were two different migrations of Numic speakers, one occurring around the beginning of the present era, the second, more than 1,000 year later, around A.D. 1150. The latter movement generally coincides with the Anasazi abandonment of the San Juan Basin, but evidence of turmoil between the two groups is sketchy at best. Other anthropologists believe Southern Utes came much later; however, most agree that by the 1500s they were well-established in the region.

At about this same time, the Paiutes separated from their linguistic brothers, the Utes. In southeastern Utah, the San Juan Band Paiute lived in close proximity to the Weeminuche. These Paiutes have been the most ethereal of an already amorphous group. Southern Paiute territory centered in southwestern Utah and Nevada, with its most eastward extension pushing into the Monument Valley region of the Utah-Arizona border.

The major distinction between the Utes and Paiutes living in this area was a cultural, not a linguistic, one, brought about by the environment and the technology derived from it. Often, in white documents and correspondence, the Utes and Paiutes of southeastern Utah are referred to simply as "Paiutes." There was no clear line of demarcation. From a more scholarly point of view, the Paiutes operated in family groups, and when resources allowed, came together as bands. They hunted and gathered in an austere desert land, had no centralized chieftain, no collective religious practices, and no common goal (other than survival) to unite the different groups. The Utes started with the same general cultural basis, but because many lived in an ecologically richer environment and because of the introduction of the horse, they assumed a more sophisticated, plains Indian-orientation. The Weeminuche, farthest west, were the last to adopt shades of the buffalo-hunting, sun-dance practices associated with this Plains Culture.

The historical record concerning the Southern Utes in Utah is vague until the mid-nineteenth century. Spanish and Mexican interaction with the Weeminuche was generally characterized as a love-hate relationship. Both Euro-American groups used barter and military might to encourage peaceful affiliations. They hired Utes to guide expeditions and fight their neighbors, the Navajos, while both Native American groups sold their captives on the slave blocks in Taos and Abiquiu, New Mexico. The Spanish Trail that ran through parts of San Juan County into central Utah, then through southwestern Utah and eventually to California, was another favored placed for Southern Ute slave and horse trading.

In 1848, after the Mexican War, Americans assumed control of the territory of Utah and inherited many of the same knotty problems of Indian control. The Navajos living in New Mexico, Arizona, and southeastern Utah fell into the same pattern with their new white neighbors, who again turned to the Utes for help. Although there were some peaceful periods shared between the two groups, the Utes looked upon this opportunity for war with the Navajos as a chance to improve their economic standing, especially since their eastern territories in Colorado had been invaded by gold miners in 1859.

The Weeminuche, with other bands, joined in extensive forays which caused the major portion of Navajos in Utah to flee to isolated, peripheral areas, though some remained. Paiutes sometimes assisted the Navajos in avoiding detection through early warning. Between 1858 and 1864, a period known to the Navajos as "the Fearing Time," the Utes wreaked havoc on Navajo settlements, though there is strong indication that perhaps because of marriage and trade ties, some families were not bothered. By 1868, when the majority of Navajos returned from their forced exile at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, there was little love lost between them and the Utes.

Ironically, the same year-1868-that the Navajos received their reservation, the Utes received theirs. The original Ute reservation of 56 million acres comprised approximately the western third of present-day Colorado. Subsequent treaties in 1873, 1880, and 1934 saw a land base of 56 million acres shrink to 553,600 acres. For the Weeminuche in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, the days of hunting and gathering came rapidly to a close. The Southern Ute Reservation in Colorado, eventually consisted of a strip of land 15 miles wide and 110 miles long.

What this meant to the Weeminuche and Paiutes living in southeastern Utah is that they would have to give up their lands and move to an arid, desolate reservation struggling to support those Weeminuche already there. In the 1870s, this was hardly worth considering: hunting and gathering was still practical, and pressures had not become overbearing. However, starting in 1878 an influx of white settlers scouted out farms and livestock ranges along the San Juan River and in McElmo Canyon, a natural thoroughfare leading from Colorado to Utah. The Indians became increasingly uneasy about this invasion from the east, especially when Mormons joined the growing cluster of settlements in 1880 by establishing Bluff. Add to this, four major livestock companies in southeastern Utah and the probing tentacles of Navajo expansion from the south, and friction over resources became inevitable and continuous.

The 1880s and early 1890s were characterized by intense, sporadic confrontations between the Indians and cowboys, settlers, and military units. Conflicts at Monument Valley, Pinhook Draw, White Canyon, Blue Mountain, McElmo Canyon, and Navajo Mountain resulted in deaths and a growing animosity on both sides. Different Ute/Paiute factions under the leadership of men like Red Jacket, Narraguinip, Mariano, Bridger Jack, Polk, Johnny Benow, and Posey reacted to the disintegration of their lifestyle. Many of these fragmentary groups either gave up and moved to the reservation in Colorado or coalesced into what would be recognized by the late 1800s as the Montezuma and Allen Canyon Ute groups. Although these two factions were interdependent, the particulars of their experience varied somewhat.

Years of unrest, fighting, and intimidation on both sides always seemed to end with another request by whites to get the Utes to their reservation in Colorado. However, the same pressure that evicted the Northern Utes in Colorado to the Uintah Reservation, was also working to get the Southern Utes off of their Colorado lands and into San Juan County, Utah. Ignacio, leader of the Southern Utes, agreed to look the region over, and so with a delegation from his tribe, traveled to the area around Monticello before giving a nod of approval in 1887. A year later, the government presented a plan that signed over to the Utes 2,912,000 acres, a promise of $50,000 in ten annual payments, and $20,000 worth of sheep. For six years the politicians in Washington, encouraged by local and state support, tried to prevent the loss of the county. In November, 1894, 1,100 Indians and their agent, David Day, tired of waiting, arrived in San Juan. Messages flew thick and fast, the end result of which set the Utes back to Colorado, but left the original Ute and Paiute stock in place.

Special government agents who visited the Utah Weeminuche in 1908 and 1915 reported their destitute condition and the continuing friction against their white neighbors. Two serious events happened within the next seven years. The first incident involved a Ute named Tse-Ne-Gat, who killed Juan Chacon, a Mexican sheepherder. Ten months after the crime occurred, the Ute was still free, so Marshall Aquila Nebeker deputized local helpers from Cortez, Bluff, and Blanding and set out to make the arrest. Men from both sides died, but the Utes were only too happy to flee the field. Hysteria in local white communities ran rampant, and it was not until General Hugh L. Scott arrived that the Indians felt comfortable in surrendering. Polk, Tse-Ne-Gat, Posey, and Posey's Boy accompanied Scott to Salt Lake City then Denver, where Tse-Ne-Gat stood trial and the jury found him not guilty.

Local whites were irate, especially when the Indian Rights Association from back East sprang to the Indians' defense. More brush fire conflicts arose in 1917, 1919, and 1921, until finally, in 1923, local whites reached a final "solution." The main force behind this achievement was rooted in an insignificant affair involving two young Utes who robbed a sheep camp, killed a calf and burned a bridge. The culprits voluntarily turned themselves in, stood trial, but then escaped from the sheriff's grasp. The people of Blanding moved quickly to get not only the two boys, but Posey as well, who by this time had become synonymous with all of the ill-will felt between the two cultures. To the towns people, he was the living metaphor of all the troublesome Indians.

In spite of what the newspapers reported then, and what has since been billed as the "Posey War" or the "last Indian uprising in the United States," the events that followed moved little beyond a mass exodus of Utes and Paiutes fleeing their homes to escape the white men. Posey fought a rear-guard action to prevent capture, was eventually wounded, watched his people get carted off to a barbed wire compound in the middle of Blanding, and died a painful death from his gunshot wound a month later. Only one other Ute died during the incident.

The government too the opportunity to settle both the Allen Canyon Utes involved in the fracas, as well as the Montezuma Canyon Ute band, on individual parcels of land. Twenty-three allotments went to those in Montezuma and neighboring Cross Canyon, and thirty went to those in Allen Canyon, thus removing the Indians from long disputed range lands.

The mid-1920s saw the establishment of a small Ute farming community in the Allen Canyon area. Attempts to teach agricultural techniques by local whites, met with nothing but frustration on both sides. Formal education suffered also. The Utes requested a school be built in Allen Canyon but their bid for local education was unsuccessful. The majority of their children attended school at Towaoc, tribal headquarters of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation just outside of Cortez, Colorado. Many of them were so unhappy, that in 1930, a private home in Blanding, later named the Ute Dormitory served as a first attempt to integrate Ute children into a white school. For eleven years, the dormitory functioned, but was eventually closed because of the expense, the start of World War II, and limited success. Other local attempts to integrate Utes into the educational system met with some resistance, but the seeds for future accomplishments were already planted and would bear fruit later.

Many Utes realized that their isolation in Allen Canyon was counter-productive, while others living on the outskirts of Blanding, wanted to have better lands for farming. Starting in the mid-1950s, families began to move onto White Mesa and form a community eleven miles south of Blanding. Frame homes arose out of the sagebrush, electricity arrived in 1964, and bus service delivered Ute children to the schools in town.

Today the community boasts a population of around 350 people, has 100 modern homes with electricity and running water, and is governed by the White Mesa Ute Council, established in 1978. Many of the Ute people are employed in service industries such as schools, motels, etc.; some work for the Council; others are employed at Towaoc in farming projects and in the casino. Every September, the community participates in the traditional Bear Dance and welcomes visitors anxious to share a part of Ute heritage.