The Ute

Great Basin

Recorded and Edited by Willard Rhodes

The Indian tribes that inhabited this vast geographic area have been described by Dr. Ruth Underhill in her book Red Man's America as "those who had little to lose." The Great Basin is an intermountain desert country, bound on the east by the Rockies and on the west by the Sierras and Cascades. The ecology of the desert provided a hard and meager living, and the small seminomadic family groups were kept moving in their ceaseless quest for food.

Women dug for edible roots and gathered seeds and nuts. Grasshoppers were driven into trenches, roasted alive, then ground into flour. Men hunted for rats, lizards, and small game, and with nets made of hemp, they snared rabbits and birds. The wikiup, a dome-shaped arbor of poles and reeds, was their shelter from the heat of the day and the cold of the night. It was a hard life, and one wonders how the people were able to survive in this hostile environment.

Great Basin Indian culture was determined to a large extent by the land. Living in small family groups, they had no need for a formal social organization, and the physical demands of keeping alive left little time for the development of religion and the arts. Their lack of contact with other tribes and the stimulus that results from such contacts may be regarded as impeding the technological development of these people to whom the derogatory name "Diggers" was applied by some whites who regarded them as living no better than animals.


When first discovered, the Utes were living in the mountain regions of present-day Colorado, Northern New Mexico, and Eastern Utah. Like other tribes, they probably were part of a great migration of Indians from Western Canada and Alaska sometime during the 1300s A.D. Eventually they became a loose federation of seven bands, of which the Mouache and Capote constitute the Southern Ute with headquarters at Ignacio, Colorado.

The Weeminuches, now known as the Ute Mountain Ute, have headquarters at Towaoc, Colorado. The four remaining bands comprise the Northern Utes with headquarters at fort Duchesne, Utah.

The ecology of the land made it necessary for the bands to break up into small family units in their quest for food. Seeds, wild berries and fruits were gathered, and corn, beans, and squash were occasionally planted. From early spring to late fall the, men hunted for deer, elk, antelope, and other animals.

colonization of New Mexico at the end of the sixteenth century was important in changing the life of the Utes. From the Spaniards they acquired horses, and with horses the Utes became aggressive and warlike and engaged in raids on other Indian tribes for captives whom they exchanged for more horses. The possession of horses also enabled the Utes to become buffalo hunters and extend the area of their activities.

The Spanish periord of influence was followed by a Mexican period (1821-48) when, at the close of the Mexican War, the United States took possession and the responsibility for the administration of this vast western area.

The nineteenth century was marked by raids, warfare, and broken alliances between tribes. The Mouaches and Capotes were given individual allotments of 160 acres, a reservation was established for the Weeminuches, and the remaining lands (523,079 acres of the old reservation) were opened to Anglo settlement at a minimum of $1.25 per acre. The leadership and example of Buckskin Charlie (d. 1936) has been recognized as the major influence in facilitating the change from food-gathering and hunting to an agricultural economy.

On July 13, 1950, the United States Court of Claims adjudged that land had been taken illegally from the Utes from 1891 to 1938, and that, therefore, the Confederated Bands of Ute Indians were entitled to $31,761,207.62. These trust funds were allocated to the several reservations. The Southern Utes, consisting of the Southern Utes of the Southern Ute Reservation and the Ute Mountain tribe of the Ute Mountain Reservation, received approximately $6 million. Under a constitution and bylaws ratified November 4, 1936, a chairman and a council of six members conduct tribal affairs.

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Native Words



Ute Bear Dance The Bear Dance is the most important dance of the Ute Indians and is performed every year in the early spring when the bear emerges from his hibernation, Frances Densmore in Northern Ute Music describes a Bear Dance which she witnessed in 1914. The dance was "held in a large circular space enclosed by a barrier formed by upright poles between which the branches of trees had been woven horizontally." At the side opposite the entrance was a pit in the ground covered with sheets of zinc on which the singers rested their notched sticks (morache). The scraping of the notched stick with another stick produced a rasping sound amplified by the hollow pit and said to be "like the sound made by a bear." A vocal glissando in moving from one tone to another in downward progressions is a characteristic of the singing style. Ute
Ute Peyote Song 1 The Peyote cult is a syncretic religion that combines native Indian belief's and practices with Christian symbolism. The cult had its origin in Mexico and by the eighteenth century had crossed the Rio Grande. It has passed from tribe to tribe and has become an intertribal religion. In Oklahoma the Peyote organizations have been united under a charter and certificate of incorporation granted "The Native American Church" at Oklahoma City, under the signature and seal of the secretary of state, dated October 10, 1918.

The Peyote ceremony, centering around prayer, singing, and eating the peyote, a small, fleshy cactus with hallucinogenic properties, is an interesting combination of nativistic and Christian beliefs and practices. In the all-night meetings, which are held in a special tipi, the singing of Peyote songs constitutes an important part of the ritual. Ceremonial paraphernalia, consisting of a staff, a small gourd rattle, and a water drum, specially wrapped and tied for each meeting, are passed clockwise around the circle of participants. Each person is expected to sing four songs, and each song is sung four times. The singer holds the staff in his left hand and accompanies himself with the rattle in his right hand, while the person to his right provides an accompaniment on the drum. Peyote songs are always sung by individuals, never in chorus, and with a mild vocal technique which distinguishes these songs from other songs. At four stated intervals during the ceremony the leader sings special songs which are always sung at these points in the ritual. These four songs- "Opening Song," "Night Water Song," "Morning Sunrise Song," and "Closing Song" -may be heard on AFS L35, the Kiowa album of this series.

As Peyote songs, particularly the four special songs, are passed on from one tribe to another as an integral part of the ceremony, it is not surprising that they manifest a unity and distinctness of style that sets them apart from other tribal music. In describing the style of Peyote songs, David McAllester notes that they are
"(1) sung with a relatively 'mild' vocal technique; (2) they are fast; (3) the accompaniment is in eighth-note units running even with the voice and adding to the impression of speed; (4) they are uniquely consistent in the use of only eighth and quarter-note values in the vocal melody; (5) they have the usual Plains phrase patterns but in addition show a significant incidence in paired patterns, restricted compass and unusually long and flat codas; (6) the finals show a cumulative use of the tonic for phrase endings; (7) at the end of the typical peyote song, as diagnostic as the Christian 'amen,' comes the phrase 'he ne ne yo wa.'"
The Ute Peyote songs (A15 and A16) sung on this record by Herbert Stacher are representative of the general musical style of Peyote songs.
Ute Peyote Song 2 Ute
Ute Turkey Dance The Turkey Dance is one of the principal dances of the Ute. The native name for the dance means "jigging dance," but the name by which the dance is known was given by white men. Singers sit around a large drum at the entrance to the dance circle and beat the drum as they sing. The dancers follow the leader imitating a turkey by thrusting their heads forward and wagging from side to side, their arms hanging loosely from the shoulders. The dance step consists of putting the feet to the ground alternately, the point of the foot touching the ground first, then the heel, "put down with an accent" (Densmore 1922).

The song, with its downward melodic movement in a series of terraced phrases ending on the lowest tone of the song with a glissando, bears a close resemblance to the musical style of the Plains.
Ute Parade Song The 'The Parade Song," with its slow tempo and the vocal trill on the alternation of two tones, has a distinct ceremonial character. Like the preceding song, it partakes of the Plains musical style with its downward melodic movement. Ute