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The People of the Land of the Sun: Ute Indians

The Ute, also known as the people of the “land of the sun,” today mainly occupy Utah. They descended from peoples who spoke languages of the Uto-Aztecan, or Uto-Aztekan, language, and their ancestors, who spoke the proto-language that eventually lead to the modern language, were Mesolithic Aridoamerican foragers of about 5,000 years ago.

Ute family. ca. 1880. Photo by C. R. Savage

The people of this linguistic family lived predominantly in the western United States and Mexico, with the northernmost groups speaking the Ute language, and the southernmost groups speaking Mexico’s Aztecan languages. Their family consists of many languages with complex, confusing relationships between them. Interestingly, their language and culture ties them much more closely to the Native Mexican Americans than it does to other Native Americans, like the Apache, Navajo, and most of the Puebloans surrounding them.N22

The Ute people lived largely in the Great Basin, and today inhabit three tribal reservations, Uintah-Ouray, Southern Ute, and Ute Mountain, in Utah and Colorado. The Ute probably came from people who occupied the present day U.S. and Mexico borderland, in the areas delineated today by New Mexico, Arizona, Sonora, and Chihuahua. At least one anthropologist believes that they came from further south, though. Larger groups of Ute included the Capote, Cumumba, Moache, Moanumts, Pah Vant, Parianuche, San Pitch, Sheberetch, Taviwach, Timanogots, Tumpanawach, Uinta, Uncompahgre, White River, Weeminuche, and Yamperika.N23

Seals of the Northern, Southern, And Mountain Ute Tribes

The early Ute hunted and gathered, migrating seasonally, up and down the mountains and canyons, sometimes travelling up to 400 miles between seasonal camps (Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, 2014-2015).N24 When the Spanish brought horses to the Americas, they gained notorious fame as mounted raiders in the Rocky Mountains and eastern plains, hunting buffalo and adapting the lifestyles and habits of Indians of the Plains. They eventually used teepees and adapted the Plains Indian’s style of dress.

During the late 19th century, the U.S. Government confined the Ute to reservations, a difficult change for a nomadic people, bringing them a period of severe hardship. The Ute people changed their lifestyle from one of hunting to a life of farmers and ranchers. With diversification of the regional opportunities, the Ute likewise adapted to the modern economy. Today the Ute economy includes tourism and recreational activities, like hiking, biking, skiing, hunting, and fishing. Along with their tourism industry, real estate and retail activities provide additional business. Natural resource management activities, like ranching, petroleum production, and farming also play an important role in the modern Ute budget.N25

Contributing Author – Jeffery Bacon