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Ute Land Religion in the American West, 1879-2009

Ute Land Religion in the American West, 1879-2009

by Brandi Denison

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Ute Land Religion in the American West, 1879–2009 is a narrative of American religion and how it intersected with land in the American West. Prior to 1881, Utes lived on the largest reservation in North America—twelve million acres of western Colorado. Brandi Denison takes a broad look at the Ute land dispossession and resistance to disenfranchisement by tracing the shifting cultural meaning of dirt, a physical thing, into land, an abstract idea. This shift was made possible through the development and deployment of an idealized American religion based on Enlightenment ideals of individualism, Victorian sensibilities about the female body, and an emerging respect for diversity and commitment to religious pluralism that was wholly dependent on a separation of economics from religion. 

As the narrative unfolds, Denison shows how Utes and their Anglo-American allies worked together to systematize a religion out of existing ceremonial practices, anthropological observations, and Euro-American ideals of nature. A variety of societies then used religious beliefs and practices to give meaning to the land, which in turn shaped inhabitants’ perception of an exclusive American religion. Ultimately, this movement from the tangible to the abstract demonstrates the development of a normative American religion, one that excludes minorities even as they are the source of the idealized expression.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496201393
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 07/01/2017
Series: New Visions in Native American and Indigenous Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Brandi Denison is an assistant professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of North Florida. 

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Ute Land Religion in the American West, 1879-2009

By Brandi Denison

University of Nebraska Press and the American Philosophical Society

Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-7674-1


Plowing for Providence

Nathan Meeker's Folly

On a warm fall day in 1881 the United States Cavalry marched fourteen hundred Ute men, women, and children out of their Colorado home. The cavalry had given them two hours to pack what they could carry. Everything else was left behind. Among the possessions the Utes were forced to leave was their herd of fifteen hundred horses. The horrors of removal belied a peaceful history with the United States government, as Ute leaders had negotiated and signed treaties that designated twelve million acres of western Colorado for Utes. The treaties were broken less than a decade later. To many white Coloradoans, "removal" — or, to use an anachronistic but a more accurate phrase, ethnic cleansing — was the just, moral response to increased contact between the settlers and Utes.

Lawmakers and United States citizens concluded that the Utes must go, as one Denver newspaper proclaimed. Most white Coloradoans agreed that this violation of treaties was moral and just, not a symptom of greed. Although potential settlers had heralded western Colorado as an untapped agricultural, pastoral, and mining promised land, initial survey reports dismissed the region as an arid desert, plagued with alkaline soil and unsuitable for farming. While land lust infected many would-be pioneers, the desire for Ute land was only one factor in the ethnic cleansing. Examined through another set of lenses, white greed for western Colorado was rooted in the proper use of land and, in particular, the possibility of social transformation through farming. In the days leading up to Ute ethnic cleansing, nineteenth-century Utes and whites constructed religious and racial categories through land use. For the United States government and its agents, the transformation of how Indians used land held potential for erasing differences and pointed to God's destiny for American soil. For Utes, resistance to farming practices was rooted in longstanding Ute and Spanish ethnic hierarchies. The ethnic cleansing created the conditions necessary to divorce resource collection, central pieces of Ute ceremonial practices, from modern notions of Ute spirituality, creating the conditions for the formation of Ute Land Religion. The disassociation of the land's physicality into a displaced land religion is rooted in the colonial history of removal, loss of hunting rights, and the push for farming. During this era Euro-Americans reserved the term religion for Euro-American ceremonial practices, whereas these settlers categorized Ute ceremonial practices as "superstition." The language in this chapter reflects this distinction, whereby I categorize Ute practices such as creation narratives and ceremonial dances as "ceremony" and white ideas about salvation, both individual and social, as "religion." Both, however, reflect the constellation of beliefs and practices reflecting the idea that religions are "confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and superhuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries."

Pre-Contact Great Basin

The Utes occupied the eastern portion of an area geologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists call the Great Basin. Overall, the Great Basin includes the desert region of southern California, Nevada, Utah, eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, western Colorado, and western Wyoming. The eastern portion, some 130,000 square miles of land, inspired Ute creation narratives and ceremonial practices, particularly the annual Bear Dance. Remnants of ceremonial and political conflicts dot the landscape, even as the human memory of them has faded. Geologically, the Great Basin is a high plateau situated between 4,000 and 5,000 feet above sea level. The forces building the surrounding mountain ranges also created the Great Salt Lake, its distinctive aquatic feature. Rivers and lakes in the region do not drain into an ocean, but instead into the lake, the remnant of an ancient inland sea, the shores of which expanded and receded over thousands of years.

Geopolitical and environmental changes marked the history of the Great Basin cultural region. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Great Basin has supported human life for at least 13,000 years. During the Paleo-Indian period the first human inhabitants lived in a landscape that would have been deeply unfamiliar to Utes in the fifteenth century CE. Bonneville Flats, a modern-day salt bed, was once a massive lake where the waters receded and rose as the global climate fluctuated. Lake levels dictated migration and foraging patterns. The Paleo-Indian Great Basin diet included the mammoth and other fauna that have since disappeared.

The farming Fremont culture displaced the hunter-gatherer cultures in the Great Basin region around 2,000 years ago. This culture dominated the Great Basin for nearly one thousand years with the cultivation of maize, beans, and squash. The Fremont culture declined around 1400 CE and the Numic-speaking peoples inhabited the region. Most scholars hypothesize that the disappearance of the Fremont and the rise in Numic-speaking peoples resulted either from the climate change brought by the Little Ice Age or from intermarriage between the Numic speakers and the Fremont. Despite unanswered questions, the archaeological record suggests that Great Basin history is characterized by frequent cultural changes.

Rock art might record the ceremonial significance of the prehistoric cultural shifts in the Great Basin. Archaeological evidence for ritual practices from the pre-contact era is scarce; however, through rock art analysis, some scholars have attempted to make the rock art speak. A large proportion of Paleo-Indian Great Basin rock art from this era depicts big game hunting, an activity that represented a fusion of social, economic, and ceremonial meanings. Great Basin rock art might reveal ancient upheavals and displacement from the land through ritualized vandalism. For instance, one study compared pre-Numic rock art to Numic rock art and suggested that because the Numic group did not rely on big game, they did not use rock art in hunting ceremonies. In fact, they propose that the Numic groups defaced the older rock art to counter the pre-Numic hunting power. If this theory is correct, it suggests that meticulous erasure of ceremonial artifacts to claim land is a Great Basin tradition, one that foreshadows nineteenth-century conflicts. The cultural shifts and the evidence inscribed in rocks indicate that violence, immigration, and conflicts over resource collection define Great Basin history.

Great Basin scholars disagree about how the Utes became a distinct tribe and came to occupy the region. Linguistically, the Utes speak a Uto-Aztecan language, one that most likely originated in present-day Mexico. As noted earlier, most scholars suggest that the Utes were descended from the hypothetical Numic-speaking people, but others have proposed that the Utes are the progeny of intermarriages between the Fremont and Numic peoples. Despite uncertainty in origins, most scholars agree that by 1400 CE, the Utes had developed the cultural patterns that would have been recognizable to seventeenth-century Spanish colonizers.

To many Utes, however, the Great Basin has been their home forever, and their creation narratives reflect this. What follows is my paraphrase of a Ute narrative, recorded in 1983.

Long ago, the creation story states, Sinawav and Coyote roamed the earth together alone since no one else was on the land yet. One day, Sinawav asked Coyote to cut a variety of brush into small pieces and to place them in a bag. Coyote walked all over the hills, collecting samples of all brush in the region. Once the bag once full and Coyote had returned to Sinawav, Sinawav asked Coyote to go across the land and to dump the sticks in a particular place. However, Coyote's curiosity grabbed him, and he opened the bag prematurely. Once he undid the knot, all kinds of people rushed out, speaking all different languages. Coyote, desperate to fix his mistake, rushed after the people. He caught a few of them and tied them back into the bag, but the majority of the people escaped. When he returned home, Sinawav knew what had happened. Sinawav instructed Coyote to make arrows to prepare for war because all the people would be fighting him soon. The Comanches were particularly fierce warriors. However, the Indians who were last in the bag, the Utes, were the strongest fighters, despite having fewer people.

Like the archaeological evidence, this creation narrative is limited in revealing the specifics of how Utes came to the Great Basin region, but it depicts the harsh reality of life in a politically tense region. The diversity of peoples, the limited resources, and the resulting violence between these peoples defined life in the Great Basin region.

Great Basin Indians created a thriving cultural system despite the environment. Utes and surrounding American Indian groups enjoyed a varied diet, eating over 150 kinds of plants and dozens of meats. Daily life was structured around the collection of these food sources by "mapping onto the land," meaning that hunter-gatherer groups moved through the environment to collect resources, moving encampments to resources rather than moving resources to encampments. Groups would travel through the environment with purpose, migrating according to the season and availability of foods. Land and resource ownership was determined generationally and by resource. For instance, a family group that traveled to a site in the spring for several generations to collect berries owned those berries. Thus other families would not gather berries from that location. A different family group, however, could hunt rabbits in the fall at the same site, and the berry-collecting family would need permission to hunt rabbits at that location. Utes parceled the land according to time as well as space because ownership of the land was dependent on generational history and the seasonal resources collected. Gender roles were tied to resource collection. Men would hunt while women would gather and practice small-scale farming. With Spanish colonization, Utes simply adjusted this pattern of "mapping onto the land" so as to include Spanish and American settlements in their annual migrations.

Ceremonial activities centered on these patterns of resource collection, which assisted in establishing tribal identity. Smaller family groups would have lived and traveled together for most of the year, except during times of labor-intensive resource gathering and the annual Bear Dance, also called mammaqunikap, or the Forward-Backward Dance. This nearly weeklong ceremony marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring harvesting and hunting. Family groups converged to celebrate the end of winter and urge the bears to come out of hibernation, using rasps and resonators to mimic the sounds of thunder. For the Utes, the Bear was both dangerous and protective. The animal was strong enough to kill humans but also helped them to collect meat and berries and protected them from getting sick. Through the Bear Dance, single men and women gathered to meet each other and form new marital alliances, which crossed bands but served to unite the Utes as a distinctive tribal group.

Spanish Contact and Captive Trade

These annual patterns of resource gathering and ceremonial meetings happened in the midst of geopolitical tensions. Utes were sandwiched between competing political powers by the time of United States expansion into the Great Basin region. To the southwest, Utes competed and traded resources with their linguistic kin, the Paiutes, and to the northwest, with the Shoshones. To the south, the Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi agricultural cultures traded with the Utes. The Rocky Mountains to the east of Ute territory provided a formidable barrier to early white explorers but were only a mild deterrent to the Cheyennes, Arapahos, and Lakotas, as raiders frequently targeted Ute camps in search of resources.

Violence characterized interactions among groups. American Indian hunters frequently raided agricultural societies for food, supplies, and humans as part of a wider human captivity economy, in which tribes enslaved or adopted captives. Great Basin and Southwest Indians aligned status and power to modes of resource collection. The stronger hunting societies used the weaker, sedentary societies as a steady supply of food and labor. Trading fairs dominated the economic culture of the Southwest, which contrasted with raids, and such fairs were often sites of peaceful exchange (even as exchanges included captives). When agricultural societies refused to trade, the hunting societies took with force what they needed or desired. Contrary to industrialized societies' perception of hunting and gathering cultures as weak, pre-contact Utes would have imagined themselves as strong, powerful people. The agricultural societies that fell victim to Ute raids would have agreed.

Spanish colonizers exploited the existing captivity practices and constructed a wider slave trade. The land's resources must have seemed abundant and ripe for the taking for Spanish colonists hoping to fund war chests to survive in an increasingly hostile Europe. The impact of Spanish colonization traveled across long-established trading networks into the Great Basin. The accidents of geography protected the Utes from the initial Spanish colonial storm, although the ripples of colonization made an impact on social structures, particularly through the introduction of the horse and the intensification of the captivity economy. Both the horse and the captivity trade modified the way Utes interacted with their environment, transforming social hierarchies and strengthening certain assumptions about land use.

The Spanish slave trade stretched across the North American continent and provided labor for Spanish colonial enterprises. The slave trade wreaked havoc on entire communities, forcing remnants of vanished tribes to reorganize into new bands, nations, and tribes. Spanish northward expansion from colonial mines in modern-day Mexico into the present-day American Southwest led to the enslavement of agriculturally based Indians, such as the Navajos, Pueblos, and Hopis. Exploiting ancient rivalries among the raiding, semi-nomadic tribes and the settled, agricultural groups, the Spanish expanded the slaving network across existing trade routes. Although geographically isolated, the Utes and their linguistic cousins, the Paiutes, were frequent victims of the Spanish slave trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As a result, many Utes were forced into slave labor on Spanish haciendas. Through forced farming labor, some Utes intensified and transformed their perception of agricultural practices. Agricultural labor became emblematic of servitude. Several generations of Utes experienced farm work as slavery through the Spanish slave trade.

Ute horse ownership changed these political relationships. The Utes successfully claimed the region as their own by the mid-nineteenth century. Ute warriors exploited weakened Spanish colonial rule, their increased number of horses, and the relative isolation of their home in the Rocky Mountains. Horses gave Utes the means to dominate both the land and those who worked the land. The new horse-based economy heightened Utes' distaste for farm labor and provided the means to escape it. Instead of captives, the Utes became captors by raiding neighboring Paiute and Shoshone tribes. The victims of the Ute raids became the farm labor for the Spanish and, after independence, the Mexicans. Utes and Hispanos also developed friendships outside the raiding networks, particularly in southern Colorado. They lived near each other, and Hispanos traded agricultural products with their Ute friends.

Farmers (such as the Paiutes) were once again at the mercy of the hunter-gatherers (such as the Utes). Mounted nomadic groups raided defenseless agricultural settlements. The farmers allowed Utes to overcome the weakness associated with farming labor and to expand their empire. For example, in the 1850s a Utah Ute band successfully raided ranchos in southern California, herding over three thousand horses from southern California into Utah territory. Through the expanded raiding culture, horses came to represent Ute warrior masculinity. In addition to expanding the raiding culture, Ute men spent time training their horses for racing. The racing events would attract large crowds who would bet on the races. In the nineteenth century these horse races and the associated gambling became a source of positive cultural exchange between Utes and Anglo-Americans as Anglos would be eager to attempt to beat the famed Ute horse riders. Missionaries were dismayed at this particular form of assimilation. For the Utes, increased access to horses increased their ability to provide for the tribe as well as to protect the tribe from becoming farm laborers.


Excerpted from Ute Land Religion in the American West, 1879-2009 by Brandi Denison. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of University of Nebraska Press and the American Philosophical Society.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations    
List of Maps    
Introduction: Religion, Memory, and the American West    
1. Plowing for Providence: Nathan Meeker’s Folly    
2. Of Outrageous Treatment: Sexual Purity, Empire, and Land    
3. She-towitch and Chipeta: Remembering the “Good” Indian    
4. Abstracting Ute Land Religion: Fiction and Anthropology on the Reservation    
5. Remembering Removal: Enacting Religion and Memorializing the Land    
6. The Limits of Reconciliation: Ute Land Religion, Hunting Rights, and the Smoking River Powwow    
Conclusion: The Burden of Dirt and the Politics of Memory    

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