Ute Indians posing in front of a tipi.
No one knows when the ancestors of the Numic-speaking Utes arrived in Utah. But by 1500, Utes had spread through eastern and central Utah and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico.
Two distinct groups of Utes live in Utah, the Northern Utes and the White Mesa Utes.
Northern Utes lived from central Utah to western Colorado, and from southern Wyoming to northern New Mexico. Different bands were centered in Utah, Juab, Sanpete, and Pahvant valleys; the Uintah Basin; the Moab area; and the high plateaus of central Utah. Many lived in Utah Valley, which had a rich supply of fish and other resources. Once the Utes acquired horses, they ranged farther, even riding to the Great Plains to hunt bison.
Before and during the historic period, Northern Utes:
Tu-Cu-Pit, in the 1930s. He is said to have seen the Mormon pioneers enter the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
Some scholars think the Southern Utes moved into the Four Corners area around the time the Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloan, people left around 1200 CE. Some people think it may have been later.
This group is called the White Mesa Utes today because many of them live in a community on White Mesa, south of Blanding. Before that, they were part of a larger group of Southern Utes.
Before and during the historic period, these Ute people:
Like other Native American groups, white settlers and others disrupted the traditional lives White Mesa Utes. Cattle belonging to livestock companies damaged wildlife areas. Skirmishes and battles between the whites and the Utes usually ended badly for the Utes. Cowboys and settlers insisted that the government remove the Utes from their lands and onto a reservation. The government tried sending some Utes to southern Colorado and some to remote canyons in Utah.
Finally, in the 1950s, the tribe gained a “home base” on White Mesa, which has become a thriving community.
A Pahvant Ute at Kanosh in 1883.
In historic times, at least 11 different bands of Utes lived in Utah. Each band claimed its own territory, but bands intermingled and traded together.
Each Ute band traveled from valleys to mountains and back throughout the year. In general, men hunted and made weapons. Women gathered plant foods, prepared meals, and carried water and wood.
A "Ute warrior and bride," according to the photographer, J.K. Hillers, in 1873 or 74. Smithsonian photograph.
After many Utes acquired horses in the 1600s, they could do more things and travel much farther. Some traveled to the Great Plains to hunt bison. Some raided California ranchos to capture more horses. Some captured women and children from Paiute bands and sold them as slaves in exchange for guns and other goods from Spanish/Mexican traders.
When Anglo-Americans moved into the area, the Utes were at first welcoming. But as settlements and livestock spread, they threatened the Utes’ traditional way of life--and even their ability to feed themselves.
So the two groups had many conflicts. In northern Utah, two strong leaders, Wakara and Black Hawk, each led groups of Utes in fighting the settlers. In southern Utah, tension between whites and Utes/Paiutes were high, and they fought several times, even up until the 1920s.
But, like indigenous people elsewhere in the United States--and in the world--the Utes lost their fight to keep their way of life. The United States made treaties but did not keep their promises.
Children doing the Bear Dance on the Uintah-Ouray reservation in 1924.
The Northern Ute bands, along with Utes from Colorado, were forced to move to a reservation in the Uintah Basin. There they felt confined and unhappy and could not easily adjust to a life of farming, as the whites thought they should.
Today the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation is one-fourth its original size. The U.S. Congress took the land back for different purposes. For instance, it opened the reservation to Anglo homesteaders and used parts of the reservation for Strawberry Reservoir and national forest lands.
A Ute mother and her baby in a cradleboard, in 1948.
Utah’s Southern Utes also had to move to their own reservation. Today a group called the White Mesa Utes live on a reservation south of Blanding.
Read "The Northern Utes of Utah," by Clifford Duncan. Read "The White Mesa Utes," by Robert McPherson and Mary Jane Yazzie. Visit the Ute page on the Utah American Indian Digital Archive site. See more photos of Ute Indians. Learn how the Utes governed themselves.