History Colorado exhibit celebrates roots of the Ute tribes

'This is where our heart is'


For thousands of years, the Ute tribes lived off the land of the Rocky Mountains, traveling the region with the seasons, spending winters in the valleys and warm summer months in the high trails. Using their knowledge and skills, the Utes were able to survive before modern sciences came to be.

Written on the Land, a new exhibit at History Colorado, 1200 Broadway, highlights the Ute’s knowledge of math, botany and even engineering. The exhibit was done in collaboration with three tribes: the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

Denver resident Ernest House Jr., a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, was one of 30 consultants from the three tribes to help develop the exhibit.

An example of early skills is the engineering tribes used to create the wickiups the tribes used for shelter. Throughout the Front Range, House said, about 300 wickiups made by the Utes are still standing. Ute tribes were using what modern classrooms call STEM learning — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — long before those terms existed.

“We look at this example of the Utes as a way of always using a STEM principle to thrive and survive,” House said.

Exhibit director Liz Cook said that while creating Written on the Land, History Colorado received a five-year grant for $2 million from the National Science Foundation in 2016 to do more research on the tribes’ early technology. Some of the pieces on display at the museum show the ingenuity of the tribes, who used sap to waterproof baskets and math to lay out the designs of their bead work. One of the basket fragments on display at History Colorado dates back 7,000 years.

“One of the things we’re highlighting in the exhibit is this idea that Ute people were also scientists,” Cook said. “They were thinking about science and technology.”

As part of the grant, History Colorado is conducting STEM research with students from the Ute tribes and learning about techniques that have been passed down through generations. The program will reach 128,000 individuals.

Beaded necklaces, clothes and baskets are just a few of the items that can be seen at Written on the Land, which follows the timelines of the Ute people. It follows the tribes’ history in Colorado: through their early days in the area, through violence when white settlers began restricting their land and into the contemporary lives of its people today.

History Colorado wanted to help teach people more about the culture and lives of the state’s earliest residents, Cook said.

Cassandra Atencio, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act coordinator for the Southern Ute Tribe, said seeing so much of her own family history on the museum walls has been her favorite part of the exhibit. She was happy to see the collaboration between the tribes and the museum. Highlighting the tribes as the first people in the Rocky Mountains has been especially important.

“This is where our heart is,” she said. “That culture needs to be known.”

Written on the Land is on display at History Colorado as a long-term exhibit. The pieces in Denver are part of an extension from a community museum run by History Colorado in Montrose, the Ute Indian Museum.

House said he hopes the exhibit will help tell the story of a people that still live in the Denver metro area, as well as on reservations. “History started before 1776,” he said.

House was formerly executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. About 2 percent of the population identifies as American Indian, he said, or about 40,000 people in the Denver metro area.

For House and Atencio, the hope is that the exhibit will help the future of the Ute tribes — inspiring youth to start something similar for their own tribes and generating in young Utes a feeling of pride in who they are.

“The kids get to see themselves, then they can be proud of who they are,” Atencio said. “Maybe that feeling gets to grow.”


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