Curious Nature: The Nuchu who were here before us |

Curious Nature: The Nuchu who were here before us

Susie Kincade
Curious Nature
Chief Ouray was a powerful Nuchu leader. With the support of his sub-chiefs and his wife, Chipeta, Chief Ouray led his proud people through difficult transitions with white settlers, including plagues, land forfeitures, and relocation to reservations.
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On a sage-covered mesa overlooking the Eagle River, two boys hunch over a giant anthill. With intense focus, they flick agile fingers through tiny pebbles the hard-working ants bring up from below. 

“There’s another one!” the elder boy shouts, pinching a tiny turquoise bead between finger and thumb. He carefully drops it into a jar and high-fives his brother. They’ve found another treasure left by Ute natives who lived in the Rocky Mountains in pre-European times. The beads, possibly as old as 500 years, were likely trade beads left behind by Northern Utes, one of three Ute tribes whose vast territory once included most of Utah and Colorado, and whose hunting and trading forays extended into Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.   

According to archeologists, humans have occupied this area for 10,000 years. Utes — or Nuchu, meaning The People — were likely here for 1,000 years. The Spanish Escalante expedition documented Utes in the Eagle Valley when it passed through in 1776.

The Nuchu created a vast network of trails throughout Colorado. Many were used by the mountain men, and later by European settlers. Some, like this one over Ute Pass in Teller County, is used today as a two-lane paved road.
Eagle County Historical Society, Eagle Valley Library District/Courtesy photo

Nuchu led nomadic lives, meandering along their vast trail network with the seasons, from winters in Utah, to our high Rocky Mountain valleys in summer, where they fattened their prized horses on rich grasses, hunted big game, and harvested abundant plants. 

Women and children fished and tanned hides, and gathered roots, berries, and seeds. Men hunted game and traded horses. Nuchu were known for excellent horsemanship, fine buckskins, and beadwork. Their mastery of horses gave them the advantage of speed, mobility, and portability, making traveling to and from the mountains a sustainable way of life. 

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As throughout North America, the European arrival and domination over Native peoples eventually destroyed the Nuchu way of life. Colorado’s gold rush in 1859 and the flood of miners, speculators, and settlers resulted in a sequence of treaties that repeatedly shrunk tribal lands. Government policies imposing farming, Christianity, European dress, missionary schools for the children, and incursions onto Nuchu lands ignited the Meeker Incident. The brief uprising resulted in a military conflict, deaths on both sides, and the rise of a political chant, “The Utes must go!” This led the government to split the Utes into three tribes in 1880 and forced them onto two small reservations in southern Colorado and one for the Northern Utes in Utah.

The disastrous toll of Native American displacements on traditions and culture cannot be overstated. The tragic cost to historical, cultural, economic, and social health continues today. 

This Nuchu (Ute) wickiup was found on Brush Creek in Eagle. Stones and brush stacked in a cone shape formed this temporary housing for the nomadic Nuchu.
Eagle County Historical Society, Eagle Valley Library District/Courtesy photo

A few physical traces of the Nuchu remain, in the occasional remnants of a wickiup dwelling, hunting fences to funnel game into traps, small brush structures of an eagle catch, or occasional burial ground, trade bead, pot, or arrowhead. 

The Nuchu’s extensive trail network was used by early mountain men, and later as roads for white settlers. Some are popular hiking trails today in Rocky Mountain National Park, Ute Pass, and the historic Ute Trail in Dotsero

Cultural reparations are growing across the U.S. for First Nations people. Recently an offensive slur against Indigenous women naming nearly 650 geographic features was removed, including renaming a creek in Edwards as Colorow Creek. 

Mount Evans, named for the disgraced governor who oversaw the Sand Creek Massacre, is slated for a new moniker, Mount Blue Sky

Citizen groups like Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance advocate retitling the Gore Range. Instead of honoring a self-proclaimed Irish lord who passed through on an 1850s hunting trip, leaving decimated wildlife populations in his wake, Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance and others seek the name Nuchu Range, honoring the Blue Sky people who revered these mountains for hundreds of years, living a difficult life in harmony with the land. 

Susie Kincade is a nature-based coach, earth activist, and founder of the Women’s Empowerment Workshop. She lives in Eagle.

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