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Last modified: October 18, 2021

Ute Indians – Ute

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Northern Ute Indians

Ute Indians (who call themselves Nuciu, “The People”) are Southern Numic speakers of the Numic (Shoshonean) language family. At the time of Euro-American contact, twelve informally affiliated Ute bands inhabited most of Utah and western Colorado.  The bands recognized, traded, and intermarried with each other, but maintained no larger tribal organization. Band members gathered annually at their spring Bear Dance or to take advantage of some resource abundance, but otherwise remained in local residence groups of from 20 to 100 people.

Utes practiced a flexible subsistence system elegantly adapted to their environments. Extended family groups moved through known hunting and gathering territories on a seasonal basis, taking advantage of the periodic abundance of food and material resources in different ecozones. Men hunted deer, antelope, buffalo, rabbits, and other small mammals and birds with bows and arrows, spears, and nets. Women gathered seed grasses, piñon nuts, berries, roots, and greens in woven baskets, and processed and stored meat and vegetal materials for winter use. Utes took advantage of the abundance of fish in Utah Lake and other fresh water sources, drying and storing them for trade and winter use.  Ute families lived in brush wickiups and ramadas in the western and southern areas and used hide tepees in the eastern reaches of Ute territory. Men and women kept their hair long or braided, and depending on the region and season wore woven fiber skirts and sandals, rabbit skin robes, and leather shirts, skirts, and leggings. They made baskets and skin bags for carrying their goods, as well as implements of bone, stone, and wood.

Utes acquired horses from the Spanish by 1680. Especially in the eastern areas, horses increased Ute mobility, allowing them to focus on big game mammals and adopt Plains Cultural elements. Horses facilitated Ute raiding and trading, making them respected warriors and important middlemen in the southwestern slave and horse trade.

The initial Mormon settlement in the Salt Lake Valley occurred in a joint occupancy zone between Utes and Shoshones, and therefore caused little immediate disruption. But as settlers moved south along the Wasatch Front, they began competing with Utes for the scarce resources of these valuable oasis environments. Pushed from the land, Utes led by Wakara retaliated in a series of subsistence raids against isolated Mormon settlements. The Walker War (1853-54) signaled the beginning of Ute subsistence displacement and the “open hand, mailed fist” Indian policy of Brigham Young–feeding when possible, fighting when necessary.

David Rich Lewis

UTE The state of Utah is named after the Utes or Yutas, a Spanish word. After several armed conflicts with the Mormon settlers in 1861, at the request of the Mormons through the Treaty of Spanish Fork, the Utes were forced by executive order of President Abraham Lincoln to leave Provo Valley and move in the Uintah Basin. In 1881, another reservation, the Uncompagre Reservation, was created close to the Uintah Reservation and two other bands from Colorado were moved to Utah. The Utes (tribal membership of 3,300 members) operate their own tribal government and supervise approximately 1.3 million acres of trust land. (Source: A History of the Northern Ute People and Ute Indian Tribe, 1997

The Utes

….. teach ’em to speak Ute. And don’t let them ever forget how we’re supposed to live, who we are, where we came from.”–Connor Chapoose

Confined on reservations, no longer free to range over the mountains and deserts of their lands in the incessant quest for food, the hard-pressed Utes never completely forgot how they were supposed to live, who they were, and where they came from. The elders handed this knowledge down to them in family tepees, during tribal ceremonies, and in the everyday practice of religion and acknowledgment of their myths. They knew that once their lands had stretched as far east to what is now the city of Denver, as far west to the Great Salt Lake Desert, and from northern Colorado and northern Utah south to the New Mexico pueblos. In these lands of mountains and deserts, the Utes were assured of ample food. The White River band of Indians hunted and fished in the Colorado Rockies and the Uintas during the summers while their women gathered seeds and berries. Buffalo meat was sliced thinly and dried; bones and marrow were boiled and ground into a gelatinous food; seeds were crushed into flour; and berries were dried, with part of the harvest pounded into dried meat (pemmican) and stored to be eaten in wintertime. The desert Indians ingeniously gathered myriad kinds of seeds and cacti to augment the large and small animals that were their main source of food. Not all of the Ute bands, however, were so fortunate as the Utes of the Utah Lake area who had an abundance of trout available as well as berries, seeds, roots, venison, and fowl; but as with most Indian tribes, they well understood the uses of the earth.

The shelters for the largest portion of the tribe were tepees, but brush and willow houses that were easily heated by an open fire were used as well. These structures were also cool in summer. One family might build several, depending on where they chose to live during that portion of the year: one at a fishing camp in winter, another near the place where seeds were gathered in July, another for the gathering of wild berries and fruits in August and September, and yet another in the pine forests where the women could gather the nuts and men could hunt in late summer and fail.

Their myths, together with their traditions, told the Utes how they were “supposed to live.” It was far from the stereotype of Indians as an aimlessly roaming people ruled by primitive whims, ruthless to their women, children, and enemies. The Utes used their territory with systematic efficiency for the gathering of food and for the comfort of the season. Economics determined that they live in small bands of probably fewer than two hundred people, except for the large encampment at Utah Lake. This allowed them to maintain their food supply without endangering the size of herds, the grasses, or plants on which they subsisted.

Long before white contact, the Ute people believed in the immortality of the soul. They believed in a Creator God, Senawahv, and other lesser gods–a God of Blood, healer of the sick; a God of Weather, controller of thunder and lightning; a God of War; and a God of Peace. The Ute people believed in the pervasive power of Senawahv who fought and won over evil forces, and therefore their view of life and afterlife was essentially optimistic. None of the religions of the people from the European continent has ever been successful in altering this view among the Ute people.

The religion of the Ute people has always been highly individualistic in its application. Group rituals were not common, although two celebrations, the Bear Dance and the Sun Dance, have remained important to the present day. The religion was dominated by shamans (medicine men), people possessing special powers. Persons sought through the shaman the power of the supernatural to help them gain good health, courage, ability in the hunt, and defense of the groups. The practices of the shamans were not alike, nor were they formalized systems. Each shaman acted, sang, and used items which were different for each occasion and each manifestation of power. Some items used regularly by the shamans were eagle feathers, eagle bones, fetish bags, and certain medicinal plants. In performing their acts, especially in healing, the shamans often used songs and prayer to assist them. The practice of using shamans’ services has increased in some of the Ute communities in the recent past.

The family was the center of Indian life and loyalty to it was the fabric of existence. The family included not only the immediate members as in European cultures, but extended to uncles, cousins, and maternal and paternal grandparents. Grandparents were extremely important for their judgment and for their intimate involvement in the rearing of children.

The honors extended to the aged were many–first to be served, seated in honored spots, and accorded special respect by the children. Work was expected of all, with the exception of small children. Prowess in hunting and defending the people was admired in men. In women, integrity, the ability to gather foods, prepare them, and the tanning and sewing of leather for clothing were admired traits. The woman who could feed, clothe, and shelter her family well was extended prestige. Babies were welcomed; their khans (“cradle boards”) were decorated with beaded flowers and rosettes in blue for girls and often butterflies and rosettes in red for hays. The aromatic smooth inner bark of cedar was shredded for use as diapers.

The songs and stories of the people were the entertainment and the learning systems of the Utes. An infinite number of stories were told, some for moral instruction, some of bravery, some illustrative of the foolish acts of men, while others were of lyrical beauty describing nature as the handiwork of God. The stories and songs provided a milieu for nearly every act: birth, reaching manhood or womanhood, going to war, marriage, or death. Each storyteller and singer of songs had his own style and variation of which he was proud.

Surrounded by a large family, a plentiful earth ruled over by a beneficent God, the Ute child grew to maturity in a world where he felt himself an integral and welcome part.

Beyond the family, leadership was shared by many people rather than a “leader” in the commonly held sense of the word. Leaders were chosen from time to time to perform duties such as to lead a war party in defense of the Ute domain, or to lead the hunt for food. The most common form of leadership was simply respect for the wisdom of the elders of the tribe who assembled and came to decisions concerning matters. Following European contact, persons who were chosen to perform certain duties for the tribe were assumed by outsiders to be chiefs or rulers. They were not. They were respected members of the tribe performing certain functions.

Women, too, were given leadership roles. Chipeta, the wife of Ouray of the Uncompahgre band, is one of the celebrated women in the history of Colorado and Utah. John Wesley Powell was impressed with chief Tsau-wi-ats’s wife and wrote in his journal:

His wife, “The Bishop,” as she is called, is a very garrulous old woman; she exerts a great influence, and is much revered. She is the only Indian woman I have known to occupy a place in the council ring.1

The ancient rituals continue to be held; the oldest is the Bear Dance in spring, at about the time bears leave hibernation. The dance takes place within a large circle made from willows and brush. All ages join in. The music comes from native instruments or modified ones using modem materials. The men and women form separate lines, face each other, and move back and forth in unison to the rhythm of the drums and the singing. The singers are usually women. But the Bear Dance is more than just a dance. It is a festival, a time of great socializing; card playing, hand games, and courting are carried on. Feasting and visiting last into the night.

The ritual having the greatest influence on the present-day Utes is the Sun Dance. This important celebration was introduced by tribes from farther north about 1890. The dance is an elaborate ceremony associated with gaining power or regeneration. It lasts for four days and nights, and the dancers neither drink nor eat during this time. The ceremony is a combination of ancient Indian and Christian symbolism. A permanent site for the Sun Dance has been established near Whiterocks, Utah. A twenty-acre plot holds the ceremonial edifice as well as providing room for the scores of tribal members who camp at the site. The dates of these summer dances vary, but July is more often the time for the event than June or August.

Southern Ute Indians

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 media/docs — Wimonuntci, Weminutc, Guibisnuches, Guiguimuches, Wamenuches, and others —

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.  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.

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.

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

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.

Robert S. McPherson

The oldest continuous residents of Colorado are the Ute Indians. It is not known exactly when the Utes came from the north and west and inhabited the mountainous areas of the present-day states of Colorado , Utah (which name comes from the Ute people), and New Mexico. We do know that the earliest Utes came into the present day United States along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. It is possible that the coming of the Utes was the reason for the Anasazis to move into sandstone caves of the area. Possibly, too, the Utes displaced or replaced those earlier peoples who had developed in the region from the early Basketmaker stage through the Developmental Pueblo stage and into the classic Mesa Verde period. Ruins of the ancient culture of the Anasazi are to be found throughout the present reservation of the Southern Utes. If the Utes tried to leave their mountainous area and go other places to get food, they found other Indian groups already there who would fight them to drive them out. To the east and northeast of the Utes were the Arapaho, Cheyennes, Kiowa, Apaches, Comanches, Sioux, and Pawnees. To the south were the Navajos and Apaches and only the Jicarilla band of Apaches were generally friendly to the Utes. To the west and northwest were the Shoshones, Snakes, Bannocks, Paiutes, and Goshutes.

The language of the Utes is Shoshonean which is a branch or a dialect of the Uto-Aztecan language. It is believed that the people who speak Shoshonean separated from other Uto-Aztecan speaking groups about the time of the birth of Christ. Other Indian groups of the U.S. who speak Shoshonean are the Paiutes, Goshutes, Shoshones, Bannocks, Comanches, Chemehuevi and some tribes in California.


The Ute Indians ranged across much of the northern Colorado Plateau beginning at least 2000 years B.P. The very name ‘Ute,’ from which the name of the state of Utah was derived, means “high land” or “land of the sun.” The Ute language, Southern Numic, belongs to the Numic group of Uto-Aztecan languages shared by most of the Great Basin tribes. The Utes, however

Bands in the mountainous eastern regions subsisted by hunting large game and by fishing, while bands in the arid western and southern regions adapted to their environments by wandering widely and taking advantage of the periodic abundance of food and material resources in different ecozones. The arrival of Utes in the Four Corners area came later, but most anthropologists agree that by 1500 A.D. they were well-established in the region.

Present-day Utes occupy a tiny fraction of their former territories. The Northern Ute live on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation near Fort Duchesne in northeastern Utah. The Southern Ute live on a reservation in the southwestern corner of Colorado near Ignacio. The Ute Mountain Ute are descendants of the Weminuche band who moved to the western end of the Southern Ute Reservation in 1897. Their reservation is located near Towaoc, Colorado, and includes small sections of Utah and New Mexico.

Prior to their acquisition of horses the Ute wandered on foot, moving through known hunting and gathering territories on a seasonal basis. Men hunted deer, antelope, buffalo, rabbits, and other small mammals and birds. Women gathered seed grasses, piñon nuts, berries, roots, and greens in woven baskets, and processed and stored meat and plant materials for winter use. Ute families lived in brush wickiups and ramadas in the western and southern areas and used hide tepees in the eastern reaches of their territory. Of all the Ute bands, only the Pahvant were cultivating food plants at early contact.

Once they obtained Spanish horses and livestock from the Pueblo peoples of northern New Mexico, the Ute began to raise horses, cattle and sheep, and to begin raiding and trading. In eastern areas in particular, Utes became respected warriors and important participants in the southwestern slave and horse trade. In the north, they remained largely independent of colonial control until the arrival of Mormon settlers, who pressured the Utes to settle down and farm.

After the Mexican War, Americans recruited Southern Utes in their wars with the Navajos. The Utes saw it as an opportunity to improve their economic standing, especially since their eastern territories in Colorado has been invaded by gold miners in 1859. The Weeminuche, with other bands, joined in extensive forays which caused most of the Navajos in Utah to flee south. Ironically, in 1868 both tribes reaped the same dismal reward – removal to the reservation.

The Utes –  Mountain Top Indians – 1) nomads 2) used horses – hunting, carry loads and travel 3) buffalo – meat, tepees, blankets, and clothes 4) long braids 5) men – shirts, leggings 6) women – leggings, dresses, skirts 7) lived in tepees.

(Summary from S.S. Text)


The Black Hawk Indian War was the longest and most destructive conflict between pioneer immigrants and Native Americans in Utah History. The traditional date of the war’s commencement is 9 April 1865 but tensions had been mounting for years. On that date bad feelings were transformed into violence when a handful of Utes and Mormon frontiersmen met in Manti, Sanpete County, to settle a dispute over some cattle killed and consumed by starving Indians. An irritated Mormon lost his temper and violently jerked a young chieftain from his horse. The insulted Indian delegation, which included a dynamic young Ute named Black Hawk, abruptly left, promising retaliation. The threats were not idle – for over the course of the next few days Black Hawk and other Utes killed five Mormons and escaped to the mountains with hundreds of stolen cattle. Naturally, scores of hungry warriors and their families flocked to eat “Mormon beef” and to support Black Hawk, who was suddenly hailed as a war chief.

Encouraged by his success and increasing power, Black Hawk continued his forays, stealing more than two thousand head of stock and killing approximately twenty-five more whites that year. The young Ute by no means had the support of all of the Indians of Utah, but he succeeded in uniting factions of the Ute, Paiute, and Navajo tribes into a very loose confederacy bent on plundering Mormons throughout the territory. Cattle were the main objectives of Black Hawk’s offensives but travelers, herdsmen, and settlers were massacred when it was convenient. Contemporary estimates indicate that as many as seventy whites were killed during the conflict.

The years 1865 to 1867 were by far the most intense of the conflict. Latter-day Saints considered themselves in a state of open warfare. They built scores of forts and deserted dozens of settlements while hundreds of Mormon militiamen chased their illusive adversaries through the wilderness with little success. Requests for federal troops went unheeded for eight years. Unable to distinguish “guilty” from “friendly” tribesmen, frustrated Mormons at times indiscriminately killed Indians, including women and children.

In the fall of 1867 Black Hawk made peace with the Mormons. Without his leadership the Indian forces, which never operated as a combined front, fragmented even further. The war’s intensity decreased and a treaty of peace was signed in 1868. Intermittent raiding and killing, however, continued until 1872 when 200 federal troops were finally ordered to step in.

The Black Hawk War erupted as a result of the pressures white expansion brought to Native American populations. White settlement of Utah altered crucial ecosystems and helped destroy Indian subsistence patterns which caused starvation. Those who did not starve often succumbed to European diseases. Contemporary sources indicate that Indian populations in Utah in the 1860s were plummeting at frightening rates. White efforts to establish reservations contributed additional pressures.

See: Peter Gottfredson, Indian Depredations in Utah (1919); Carlton Culmsee, Utah’s Black Hawk War: Lore and Reminiscences of Participants (1973).

John A. Peterson

Ute Indians«yoot», are a tribe of the western United States. According to the 2000 U.S. census, there are about 7,000 Ute. They live on three major reservations in Utah and Colorado. The name of the state of Utah comes from the Ute Indians.

The Ute are governed by tribal councils that are elected by popular vote. Members of the tribe work in agriculture, forestry, and tourism. They are also developing the coal, gas, oil, and other mineral deposits that lie under the reservations.

The Ute once lived in the mountains and plains of Colorado and Utah and in northern New Mexico. They built cone-shaped houses of brush, reeds, and grasses and tepees of buffalo skins. The Ute assigned hunting grounds to families and hunted such animals as antelope, buffalo, and elk and other deer in annual game drives. They also gathered berries, nuts, roots, and seeds.

Each fall, the Ute traveled to New Mexico to trade with the Pueblo Indians and the Spaniards. During the 1600’s, they obtained horses from the Spaniards, which increased the tribe’s mobility. The Ute hunted over a wider area and developed an advanced economy that involved trading meat and hides for other goods. They became powerful warriors and fought the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa tribes.

The best-known chief of the Ute was Ouray, who became prominent in the 1800’s. Ouray spoke Spanish, English, and several Indian languages. He settled disputes between the Ute and the white settlers and arranged the first treaty between the Ute and the United States government. The government assigned.


The Ute Creation Story

Long time ago when there were no people on earth, the Creator cut sticks and put them in a bag. He said the sticks would be people. Coyote watched secretly as the Creator cut the sticks. He did that all the time. When the Creator was away, Coyote opened the bag and out came a lot of people. They were all talking different languages and went in many directions.

When the Creator returned, there were very few people left in the bag, and he became very angry. His plans were to divide the people equally on the earth, and then he said, “Now there will be war between one another over the land.”

“The people that stayed in the bag will be brave and will never be defeated. They will be called Ute.”