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Retreading the history of true, Colorado natives
Photo courtesy: Library of Congress

By Joshua Pilkington

Colorado Native is a phrase often used with pride and self-admiration by those who were born in the Centennial State. But the real natives of Colorado have much deeper ties than a bumper sticker.

They went by names like the Apache, Arapaho, Ute and Cheyenne. They occupied various regions of the state including the Ute in the west, the Navajo of the southwest. The Arapaho to the east and the Apache of the south and southeast.

Several other tribes and nations have inhabited parts of Colorado during its long history. The original inhabitants of the area known now as Colorado were the Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne and Ute nations as well as the Pueblo and Shoshone tribes. Inhabiting parts of Colorado were also the Comanche, Kiowa and Navajo tribes.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, of those nine tribes and nations that once inhabited the state, there are only two federally recognized Indian tribes today in Colorado: the Southern Ute Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Though only two tribes remain, the many that once inhabited the state have left a dense mark on it. From the dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park to the Canyons of the Ancients in Dolores, Colorado is made up of its Native heritage.

Mesa Verde National Park

According to the Colorado Tourism Office, there are eight essential locations where visitors, newcomers and the bumper-sticker touting “native” can enjoy the history of Colorado’s actual natives. The quest begins in Mesa Verde National Park where over 600 dwellings are carved out of rock. The dwellings are thousands of years old and belonged to the area’s Ancestral Puebloans.

“It’s still one of the most stunning things to see in the United States, in my opinion,” said Frank Gilden, 54, who, born in Los Angeles, has made several trips to Utah, New Mexico and Colorado to whet his appetite for what he calls “real, American history.” “I have been to ruins in Mexico and Guatemala and traveled along the Inca Trail in Machu Pichu, but I still believe that our ancient dwellings are often overlooked as far as native treasures go.”

Ute Indian Museum

Further north in Montrose, is the Ute Indian Museum, dedicated to the indigenous inhabitants of western Colorado. It is one of only a handful of museums in the country devoted to a single tribe. The site features the memorial of Chief Ouray and the grave of his wife, Chipeta, after whom a 13,472-peak in the Swatch Range was officially renamed last year thanks to the efforts of the Chipeta Mountain Project.

Ute Council Tree

As we’re already in western Colorado, we’ll venture to a 200 (and counting)-year-old cottonwood where it is believed that Chief Ouray, Chipeta and Ouray’s braves met with white settlers to smoke the pipe of peace and settle their differences. The tree, now reduced to a 23-foot stump, is known as the Ute Council Tree. The cultural landmark is symbolic in that it is one council-meeting site where Chipeta (believed to be the only American Indian woman permitted to sit in council meetings) was present.

Canyons of the Ancients

Staying west, but moving about 150 miles south is a tourist favorite: the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The area - basically an open-air museum - contains more than 6,000 documented archaeological sites.

“This is not a site-by-site facility,” Gilden said. “I’ll be honest with you, I was a bit turned off at first because nothing was marked, like I’ve seen at other archaeological sites, but now I kind of like the DIY approach. Almost makes me feel like I’m the archaeologist.”

Visitors to the monument aren’t left to search for unmarked sites on their own, however, the Anasazi Heritage Center, provides information on exploring the monument and contains two 12th-century archaeological sites and a nature trail.

For more information on Native Americans in Colorado, including what historical sites to visit, go to





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