I arrived in Durango a week too early for the fall colors. Still, I got to see them in the Circle of Life panorama at the $38 million Southern Ute Cultural Center in Ignacio. Standing in the center of a panorama, surrounded by the orange and persimmon colored trees, listening to the calm voice of an elder telling the story of the Ute Indians transported me to a time when man lived in harmony with Earth Mother. I could almost feel the breeze as it rippled across the Pine River and see bronze warriors riding bareback across rust-colored meadows in search of game.
The Utes say that “When a man moves away from nature his heart becomes hard.”
Seven tribes of Utes called “Blue Sky People” by other Native Americans occupied the San Juan Mountains from about 1500AD until they were displaced by swarms of gold-hungry miners in the 1800s. The cultural center with its unique architecture resembling a bird’s nest in the center with two wings that serve to enfold and embrace the visitor opened in May 2011. Local timbers and boulders were used in its construction to remind us of our connection to the land. Extensive collections of historic photographs, exceptionally beautiful woven baskets, ceremonial dance regalia, and numerous artifacts are on display along with storytelling videos.
The stop at the cultural museum before heading out on the San Juan Skyway, a 236-mile loop that links Durango, Mesa Verde, Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton greatly enhanced my explorations of the region. Lynn, owner of Rimrock Outfitters in Mancos stopped our ride under her corner of blue sky to point to Sleeping Ute Mountain lazing on the horizon. The giant warrior resting on his back with hands folded on his chest is held sacred by the Utes. They gather at the base of the mountain each winter to perform the Sun Dance.
The Tribal Mountain Ute Reservation abuts Mesa Verde National Park, famous for the elaborate dwellings carved into the cleft of canyons by the Anasazi or the Ancient Ones. Unlike the sedentary Anasazi, the Utes lived in tipis and were nomadic hunters and gatherers so the only structures to explore on their tribal lands are those of the Anasazi who left the region in about 1250 AD. However, there are numerous petroglyphs and wall paintings left by the Utes in the 125,000-acre park. Half- and all-day excursions can be arranged through the Ute Mountain Museum and Visitor Center twenty miles south of Cortez.
Following in the footsteps of the Utes, the scenic skyway turns up the verdant Delores River valley through four mountain passes to high country meadows and their summer hunting grounds. The sparsely populated river corridor was once home to 10,000 native peoples. The Anasazi Heritage Center ten miles north of Cortez houses a rich collection of artifacts. Each spring the Utes made the stiff climb up the canyon to Lizard Pass passing beneath stark Ophir peak to welcoming San Miguel Mountain Park. How happy they must have been to return to this valley framed in staggering snow-capped peaks streaked with misting waterfalls. Meadows flushed pink with flowers and shrubs heavy with ripe berries awaited their return. Plentiful elk, deer, and other wildlife made this a land of milk and honey for the Utes. Today the park is home to Telluride the gentrified Victorian village famous for black diamond ski runs and its many festivals.
When the Spanish arrived in the San Juans in the 1600s, the Utes were able to trade the bounty they enjoyed with the Spanish for horses. The “magic dogs” gave them a tremendous advantage over other tribes and enabled them to remain the dominant force in the region until gold was discovered here in 1860. The Tom Boy Mine sitting above Bridal Veil falls at the head of the box canyon overlooking Telluride was the site of one of the richest strikes in the San Juans. The Utes were no match for the thousands of miners who came here despite daunting winters to seek their fortune. The boisterous mining towns of Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton sprang up overnight. The legacy of the miners who brought prosperity to the region are hundreds of miles of trails inter-connecting the mountain towns enjoyed by hikers and mountain bikers and 4WD enthusiasts.
The Skyway turns east over the Dallas Dive to neighboring Uncompahgre Mountain Park and the hamlet of Ouray-the sweetest spot in the San Juans. Mt. Abrams, a Matterhorn look alike, stands guard over the hamlet framed in an amphitheater of rose-colored cliffs. The mountain tribes congregated here each spring to perform the Bear Dance, a ceremonial rejoicing that lasted many days. The healing waters of natural hot springs were favorite resting places of the great Chief Ouray. Today, clothing optional Orvis Hot Spring with eight pools in lushly landscaped grounds is a favorite of locals. A more family-oriented hot swimming pool is beside the Visitors Center in Ouray. The trailhead to the newly completed Perimeter Trail that overlooks “little Switzerland” with stops along the way at triple-tiered Cascade Falls and not-to-be missed Box Canyon with its magnificent formations carved in basement rock is across the street from the pool.
Chief Ouray was chosen to be spokesman for the Utes in Washington. He is credited with having saved his people from massacre by signing the Brunot treaty in 1873 that ceded away millions of acres of his mountain home to the U.S. government. This led to the migration of the Utes to reservations and the end of their nomadic existence that flowed with the seasons connected to Sky Father and Earth Mother. Visitors may learn more about the Ute people and their history at the Ute Museum in Montrose or in the Ute Room at the Ouray Historical Society.
The stretch of the Skyway between Ouray and Silverton traverses the treacherous Red Mountain pass famous for avalanches Here the world is ethereal, wild, and pristine. Ragged, stark peaks glare down upon puny mankind unmoved by the scratch marks made by early miners in their flanks. At this lofty elevation, fall had arrived. I descended into the volcanic caldera where the tiny berg of Silverton rests. The iron rich waters ran pumpkin orange, adding to the autumn bouquet of lemon yellow willows lining the creeks and rusty sedges in the meadows. My heart softened at the wild beauty of the place. My thoughts drifted like the white clouds floating above to the Blue Sky People and what they lost.
The bones of Chief Ouray who saved his people from a war they could not win are buried in Ignacio near the cultural center. Unlike many Native Americans, the 1,400 Utes who live on the reservation in Ignacio are prospering. Wise use of their natural resources and a thriving casino that generates revenue allows continued efforts to keep their stories, dance, songs, and celebration of the Circle of Life alive.