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Rough Waters

The Animas-La Plata project is supposed to fulfill the government's promise to Colorado Utes. But tribal opponents worry it will leave the reservations high and dry.

"There are many theories about how the Utes came to be here," she says now in English. "Siberian land bridges and all that...but my grandfather used to say that we have always been here.

"Only we were over in the mountains," she adds, sweeping her hand to indicate the purple shadows of the San Juan range. "This land here is where the Anasazi were. We traveled across it and stayed here sometimes in the winter. All the Colorado mountains, down even to Santa Fe and north into Utah...this was our territory."

The Utes, the nuche, were never many in number. But their language was related to that of several other tribes, including the Shoshone to the north in Wyoming and nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs to the south in Mexico--which helps give substance to Ute claims that they were here long before other tribes, such as the Navajo and Arapaho.

They lived in small bands of extended families rather than in the larger communities of the agriculture-based Pueblo Indians or the bison-hunting Plains Indians. Avid traders with the tribes to the north and the Pueblos to the south, they exchanged meat and hides for agricultural products like corn and melons. Carrying all of their possessions, they followed the deer and elk on foot into the high country during the summer and back down to the lower elevations in the winter.

They made wickiups--a sort of lean-to built onto a tree, some of which can still be spotted by sharp-eyed hikers in the high country--at their camps, which they usually established on hilltops near springs or streams. "When we make our prayers in the morning, we drink a cup of water and give thanks for the living waters," says Grove.

Since life expectancy was not much more than thirty years, longevity was a sign of success, and elders were revered as both teachers and counselors. They served as living libraries. They knew where to find animals in times of scarcity, where to camp by the sweetest water. They knew who were friends of the nuche and who were enemies, what mistakes had been made in the past and how to avoid them in the future.

For centuries, life changed little for the nuche. During good weather, there were small wars and raids between the tribe and the Arapaho, who often came west into the mountains, and the Navajo, who dealt in the slave trade. When the warriors returned, the women would sing scalp songs, scolding the hair of the vanquished enemies for daring to come into Ute territory. In the winter, the families would sit around the fire and tell stories as the winds howled like wolves outside the wickiups.

Then spring would come, and the nuche would emerge from their winter lodges ready to celebrate with the Bear Dance.

Although their travels might take them as far as they could walk in a season, loosely organized bands came to consider certain areas their own: northern Colorado and Utah for the White River Utes, the central Colorado mountains for the Uncompahgre Utes. The Southern Utes--including the Moache, the Capota and the Weminuche bands--roamed southwest Colorado, northern New Mexico and parts of southern Utah.

It was the Southern Utes who first met the Spaniards. In the early 1600s the Spanish, who'd moved into New Mexico decades earlier, were still looking for lost cities of gold and silver. Although they didn't find any precious metals in the possession of the Stone Age people they called the yutas, the yutas coveted something the Spaniards had: horses.

The Spanish forbade Utes from owning horses--but that didn't prevent the Utes from stealing them at night. The next morning they'd sell the worst horses back to their owners and keep the best for themselves.

The European invaders had treated most of the civilizations they encountered harshly, from the Aztecs to the Pueblos. But they were less successful imposing their will on the Utes. Ultimately, the Spaniards left the nuche alone except as trading partners and guides. For their part, the Utes were willing to live and let live so long as the newcomers recognized that this was Ute country.

The horse forever changed the Ute way of life. The nuche could now travel longer distances--to the plains to hunt buffalo or to the south to visit allies like the Jicarilla Apache. Because they no longer needed to spend so much time moving from camp to camp to follow deer and elk, the women were able to spend more time on activities such as beadwork, much of which they picked up from the Plains Indians.

But the increased travel brought the Utes into more frequent conflict with their ancient enemies, such as the Comanche, who now also had horses and could raid Ute territory. For both protection and manpower-intensive efforts such as buffalo-hunting, the Utes began living in larger communities. Suddenly, there was a need for a bureaucracy of chiefs--hunt chiefs, war chiefs, peace chiefs. The elders were still influential and respected but subordinate to the new leaders.

In 1848 the United States wrested the Southwest from Mexico, determined to protect its new lands from claims of the Spanish, French, British and Russians. The Utes, who now numbered about 8,000, recognized the jurisdiction of the United States, but still were able to wander freely through the mountains.

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