by Mary Lowers
It was one of those clear early winter nights in northern New Mexico, when the stars seem so close you could reach up and touch them, when Ouray, the famous diplomat and chief of the Ute Nation, was born. On or around November 13, 1833, as Ouray arrived in the world, the Leonoid Meteor shower was raining shooting stars over his birthplace near Taos. Ute oral history tells us this was interpreted aa a sign of good to come for the new-born.
Ouray’s mother was Ute and his father, Guera Mural, was Ute and Jicarilla Apache. Along with his native languages Ouray grew up speaking Spanish and English. Taos was a part of Mexico at this time. He worked herding sheep with Mexicans in Taos County and traded with Anglo trappers, traders and early ranchers.
As a young man Ouray travelled north and joined the Uncompahgre (Tabeguache) Ute band where his father was a leader. During these years he experienced many hardships. Ouray’s first wife Black Water died early and their son, his only biological child, was captured by the Sioux while the Ute were raiding in Sioux territory. He never saw his son again or knew for certain his child’s fate.
Ouray became a respected warrior as he did battle with Sioux and Kiowa. Along with battle skills Ouray began to develop talents as a negotiator and diplomat.
In 1859 Ouray married the beautiful and articulate Chipeta or White Singing Bird. Born Kiowa and Apache near Conejos, Colorado around 1843, Chipeta was adopted as a toddler into the Uncompahgre Ute Band, one of the then seven bands making up the Ute tribe or nation. She was 16 when she married Ouray.
In 1880 when his father died, Ouray became chief of all the Ute people. He and Chipeta became renowned diplomats, eloquent in many languages. Chipeta played guitar and sang in three languages. Ouray and his beautiful young wife worked as a team sitting next to one another at councils. They tried to smooth the trail so all people could live in peace and prosperity.
When Europeans first appeared in the western part of North America, the Ute Tribe lived in central and western parts of what’s now Colorado, eastern Utah and the upper parts of the San Juan River drainage in northern New Mexico. Mostly a hunter-gatherer people, the Ute lived in bands scattered over 150,000 square miles. Part of the native population called Shoshean by scholars, the Ute are connected linguistically with the Paiute, Chemehuevi, Kawailsu, and Bannock peoples.
Ute life changed drastically with the introduction of the horse by the Spanish. The “magic dogs”, as the Ute dubbed the horses, became treasured companions. The Ute quickly became legendary horsemen. Along with trading human slaves, a common practice among the natives and European immigrants, the Ute became expert horse traders. Ute raids on horseback were very successful. Ute Mt. in northern Taos County was a designated peaceful trading center for the native peoples of the Taos and San Luis valleys. The Ute were known as Querechos by the early Spanish and later Mexican settlers to the region.
As with many groups who were not traditional workers of the land, farming was abhorrent to the Ute. Many conflicts with new groups coming into their territory were perpetrated by the agricultural life style being forced on the natives. When the United States began administering the territory of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1847) which ended the Mexican American War, the common policy in Washington, DC was based on the premise that the “Indians” would be “better off” turned into farmers. This became the goal of many missionaries and government-contracted agents during this period. This policy of cultural assimilation promoted cultural genocide. It was also a policy easily manipulated by rich mining interests who, in the period after the American Civil War, gained increasing power and influence in the western US, as more and more valuable minerals were discovered by prospectors. Many ore deposits were found on lands native groups had legal claim on. Removing this “problem” was seen as necessary by the late 1870s.
During this time a man named Nathan Meeker was made agent over the Ute in northwestern Colorado. Meeker was unpopular and very rigid about turning the native people under his management into peaceful farmers. Against the advice of many, Meeker plowed under a favorite Ute horse racing track. Threats were made and in 1879 the cavalry was sent to help deal with the volatile situation. Upon seeing the 200 mounted troops enter their territory the Ute said the US government was invading. This was seen as an act of war, and Ute warriors attacked the fortified trading post. Eleven were killed, including Nathan Meeker. Three women and children from the agency were held captive. Ouray and Chipeta were instrumental in negotiating the peace and gave the hostages sanctuary and safe passage. Ouray and Chipeta were invited to Washington to testify about the incident.
Despite a quick and peaceful conclusion to this violence, the sentiment in Colorado turned against the Ute. Mining interests, who wanted free reign to extract the mineral wealth of the Rocky Mountains, fanned the flames of the yellow journalists who sensationalized the so called “Meeker Massacre”. In 1880 Ouray and Chipeta were in Alamosa, Colorado catching the train east to plead for the restoration of Ute land in Colorado before Congress in Washington, DC. They were nearly lynched and hung by an angry mob inflamed by the papers who wanted the Ute out of Colorado one way or another.
Before this time the Ute regularly hunted and camped in the northern San Luis Valley. Ouray and Chipeta often set up semi-permanent camps there, particularly in the summer. They were friendly and shared food and stories with early ranchers and trappers. This amiable relationship was undermined that day in Alamosa by wild rumor and sensationalistic journalism which painted all the Ute as murderous savages rather than good neighbors.
Escaping with their lives the native diplomats made it to the US capitol. They poignantly argued the case for retaining traditional Ute lands. Chipeta was the first native woman and one of the few women in those days to address the full Congress. The Washington press was won over by the lovely, eloquent woman. Unfortunately, while moved, President Taft and the Congress signed and passed the Ute Removal Act in 1880 which largely forced the Ute from east of the San Juans. Land losses increased for the Ute as Americans, displaced by the Civil War and the so-called Reconstruction, and newly arrived immigrants from Europe, fled west in droves. They were fueled by the discovery of gold and silver as well as free land and the dream of somewhere to make a new life, but they knew little or nothing about the peoples and traditions of their newly adopted home. Resentment caused attempts on Ouray’s life and some natives felt the couple “sold out” their people’s interests; yet, he and Chipeta remained lifelong diplomats.
Ouray contracted a fever near the Los Pinos Indian Agency in Colorado not long after they returned from their unsuccessful mission to Washington, DC. The fever killed Ouray, who was buried secretly by his people near Ignacio, Colorado. He rested there for forty-five years until his grave was moved to a monument near Montrose, Colorado. Despite the anti-native attitude in the west at the time of his death Ouray was beautifully eulogized in the Denver Post. “In the death of Ouray, one of the historical characters passes away. He has figured for many years as the greatest Indian of his time and during his time, and during his life figured quite prominently. Ouray is in many respects, a remarkable Indian pure instincts and keen perceptions. A friend to the White Man and protector of the Indians alike.”
Chipeta moved to the Ute Agency near the White River in Utah. She adopted four children who she remained close to until her death. By the 1920’s the rich mineral deposits had been pretty much mined out in much of the west, and Chipeta became an honored elder among Utes and Anglos. She died peacefully in her old age and is buried near Ouray in western Colorado.