A spotlight on Ute culture: New museum offers insights in a stunning setting

Ten years in the making, the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum highlights the life and heritage of the different Ute tribes through insightful exhibits within an architectural masterpiece.

Opened to the public in 2011 at Southern Ute tribal headquarters in Ignacio, Colo., it is well worth a visit. “We are very proud; it was a collaborative effort from all members of our community with input from the youngest to our elders,” said Nathan Elk, acting executive director. “It is a home for the Southern Utes and opens the public’s eyes to our history and our culture that is still going strong.”


The current exhibition at the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum, “Song of the Basket,” features over 50 baskets from around the country and the world that are either Ute or were influenced by Ute designs. Many are from Ute basket-weavers from White Mesa, Utah, who are considered to be living cultural treasures and represent a long-practiced artistic tradition. In 2002, acknowledging their dwindling numbers and concern that their elegant and complex tradition would vanish, they expressed an urgent request that their work be recorded. Ten years later, their efforts have come to life in this portrait of a relatively inaccessible community. The Temporary Gallery houses changing exhibitions of particular interest to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

Visitors will first be impressed by the unique architecture and layout of the 52,000-square-foot museum and grounds, designed to replicate an eagle. Entering the Welcome Gallery, with its natural lighting, massive wooden beams in the shape of a giant wickiup and cathedral-like open space, sets the stage.

“Look up 60 feet to the ‘Circle of Life,’ a series of colored glass sections, each representing different age groups of our people,” Elk explained. “We described what we wanted and the architects did a great job. It is really beautiful.”

Exploring the past

Selections of the museum’s 1,500 artifacts and artwork are displayed in well-organized and explained exhibits. Take time to listen to oral histories told by tribal members.

In the permanent gallery Ute leaders and experts introduce visitors to the culture with recorded creation stories of the Ute people. Listening to stories passed down for thousands of years is mesmerizing and offers a spiritual glimpse into the powerful world ruled by the Utes before the pioneers overtook the West.

The Ute tribe’s control of the Spanish Trail through their territory was undisputed up until 1860, according to the exhibits. Prior to the Mexican-American War (1846-48), all pioneers, Spanish explorers, Mexicans and other tribes required passports to travel through Ute country.

Trade between Ute tribes, Anglos and Mesoamerican cultures was prevalent. But after the war – which ceded much of northern Mexico to the U.S. – control of Ute territory was lost to “intimidation, force and fraud.”

The museum’s message is that understanding Ute culture and history means releasing preconceived notions of Native American tribes. Visitors are encouraged to imagine another era, abandon the historical lens of Catholicism, and view this native society as it was before the often violent European migration to the New World beginning in the 16th century.

Before the West was conquered by outsiders, a vibrant Ute culture thrived in the Rocky mountains and plains here.

“Children were indulged and seldom punished,” reads one panel. “They were taught to live outside and never let the sun catch them in bed. Shelter is only for sleeping.” Babies are shown strapped into cradle boards hung from tree branches or propped up watching the adults work. Examples of a child’s coat with beaded flowers, and the elaborately beaded dress of Cununiputs, “the belle of the tribe,” represent a step back in time.

The resilient Utes then adapted to a flood of refugees and pioneers who tried but ultimately failed to eliminate Native American culture and identity.

The terms “wandering” and “roaming,” sometimes used to describe the Utes, are considered annoyances, states one exhibit. “It sounds like we were lost. It doesn’t say that we lived there and traveled, and that’s what we did.”

Also, the impression that Utes received charity from the U.S. is incorrect, exhibits explain. Rather, cash, services and supplies are provided in exchange for Ute land as part of U.S. treaties with the tribe.

Especially striking are quality black-and- white photos depicting everyday Ute life dating to the early 1800’s. The sharp focus images have been enlarged and expertly transferred to fine tapestries hanging throughout the gallery.

Smithsonian connection

The Southern Ute tribe has undergone a transformation in recent decades. A towering new casino and hotel dominate tribal headquarters, and oil and gas development have boosted tribal revenues, making it one of the wealthiest tribes in the nation.

Investing in the new cultural museum, with a price tag of $35 million, was the next logical step.

“Our old museum was attached to the casino and there were security issues,” Elk said. “Now our collection is safer, better preserved, and more of it is on display now.”

The tribe worked in close collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute, which holds many Ute artifacts in its collections. Elk and other tribal leaders toured museums and met with Smithsonian curators in Washington D.C. to view and categorize Ute items and to negotiate loan agreements.

Climate-controlled exhibits and high-tech security measures at the new museum have allowed the Smithsonian to loan the tribe treasured artifacts for display.

“Before, they would not loan out the items because we did not have the right environmental controls like security and humidity control and monitoring temperatures,” Elk said. “Now they are willing to share and work with us on loaning artifacts.”

One example is the Ute Worship Dress, used by the Paiute prophet Wovoka in the Ghost or Spirit Dance. The ceremony is an expression of hope that symbolizes the pain Utes endured from broken treaties, relocation and violence against their communities.

“It is one of the items on loan from the Smithsonian. This is the first time the Spirit Dress has been displayed in public,” Elk said.

In the temporary exhibit hall, “The Song of the Basket” shows off the stylish basket art of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. The coiled basket-making trade is mostly centered in White Mesa, Utah, a remote satellite community of the Ute Mountain Utes.

Fifty examples are shown of the shallow baskets with their colorful, circular patterns and trademark exit, symbolizing “a way out.” A demonstration exhibit shows how they are made step by step, and original baskets can be purchased in the museum store.

Repatriating Artifacts

Part of the reasoning for building such a state-of-theart facility is to take advantage of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The act gives native tribes the opportunity to permanently repatriate their artifacts that over time ended up in museums like the Smithsonian and elsewhere. A key component of the return of cultural artifacts is a proper museum to house them safely.

“That [repatriation] is something that we will start to do,” Elk said. “One of the things we are interested in is Buckskin Charlie’s headdress, but there are mixed feelings among tribal members on whether we should do that.” Currently the headdress of the Southern Utes’ first chief is on display at the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose.

The Southern Ute museum also has a language center, library and archive that is being developed for access by scholars, tribal members and students.

From their ancient beginnings to the thriving culture of today, the Utes continue to succeed. A panel sums it up:

“Indian people live in two worlds. You try to balance both, and you really can’t. But you try anyway. As the Ute saying goes: When forever comes, we will be here.”

From November 2012.