What Is a Southern Ute?

C. Mitchell

A Southern Ute is a Native American Indian indigenous to Colorado. Southern Utes trace their ancestry to the Mouache and Capote bands of Ute Indians. Utes were the original residents of much of the Southwest region of the United States, stretching from southern California to the Rocky Mountains running through Colorado. It is believed that the state of Utah was named in reference to these indigenous settlers.

Many tribal governments run their own health care facilities, in addition to providing their own law enforcement, schools and other public services.
Many tribal governments run their own health care facilities, in addition to providing their own law enforcement, schools and other public services.

Most members of the Southern Ute tribe live today on the Southern Ute Indian reservation in Ignacio, Colorado. Originally, however, the Southern Ute were a largely nomadic people, living most of the year in teepees and following big game. The Southern Ute were hunters and gatherers, and organized much of their society around the harvest and changing seasons.

European settlers first made contact with the Southern Utes in 1636, when Spanish explorers traveled through what is now known as New Mexico. The Native Americans traded fur and meats for modern tools and, notably, horses. Horses were previously unknown on the North American continent, and they changed the way that all American Indians, but particularly the Utes, hunted and captured prey.

The Southern Utes are the only indigenous Colorado Indians still organized today, and the Ute tribesmen are the longest continuous residents of the state. They are also one of the many independent Indian nations recognized under U.S. law. As independent nations, all Native American tribes, including the Southern Utes, have the authority to govern themselves.

In 1934, the United States enacted the Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act, which formally permitted Native tribes to operate their own governments and exist as independent, but recognized, entities. Southern Ute tribal government is organized around a Tribal Council, the members of which are elected every three years. The tribe is governed by the Constitution of the Southern Ute, a document that was originally penned in 1936.

At one point, the Ute people were considered a single tribe. After reorganization, however, the Ute people broke into three more geographically-specific tribal groups. Mountain Utes are headquartered in Towaoc, Colorado, while Northern Utes are located in Fort Duschene, Utah.

Shoshonean is the native language of the Utes. Southern Ute tribal leaders make an effort to continue teaching and speaking Shoshonean on the reservation, though in many respects it has fallen out of common parlance, as most reservation business is conducted in English. In 2011, the Southern Ute completed construction of a cultural center and museum designed to both preserve the Southern Ute culture and inform visitors about the tribe’s history and heritage.

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