What is now Colorado was once the domain of the Utes. According to their tradition, they always lived in this region, in contrast with American Indian groups who were pushed westward while trying to stay ahead of the incessant march of white newcomers. Also known as The Mountain People, their homeland stretched from the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains all the way to present-day Utah, hence that state’s name.
From Colorado Springs, US Highway 24 travels through Ute Pass, one of the main natural corridors into the high country. Local bands of Utes overwintered in the milder climate at the foot of Pikes Peak, then migrated along the pass to their hunting grounds at South Park in the summer. By all accounts, this was teeming with bison, pronghorn, deer, and elk. Along the South Platte River which courses like an emerald ribbon through this otherwise semi-arid habitat countless beaver also abounded.
The modern-day visitor enjoys a jaw-dropping view of that somewhat unexpected landscape from the top of 9504 foot-tall Wilkerson Pass, 60 miles west of Colorado Springs (see featured image above). From the Pass, one drives down into the flat and open expanse of South Park.
One of three so-called parks in Colorado’s topography, along with Middle and North Parks, the name was derived from “parc”, a designation by French trappers for mountain basins rich in game. They were among the early exploiters of nature’s wealth.
In the vastness of South Park, I try to envision the area without fences, houses, roads, and cars, when it was crisscrossed only by paths wide enough for animals and people on horseback. Surrounded by snow-covered peaks, one feels reduced in size — a speck of sand on this dusty soil which was nonetheless replete with prairie grasses, fragrant sagebrush, and further forage nutritious enough to sustain large numbers of herbivores.
Conjuring images of tens of thousands of buffalo is challenging. Their bounty is long gone. In typical, short-sighted European fashion, most of these humpbacked, shaggy ungulates were hunted to the brink of extinction. The near-erasure of the animal iconic of the American West is a sad story. Even sadder is the subsequent loss of the homeland of the Utes, who had coexisted with and whose livelihood depended on those beasts since time immemorial. They were driven from their territory, to reservations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah which could not sustain their way of life.
But there is hope for the natural balance of South Park. Descendants of the North American Bison were successfully reintroduced and can be seen munching on what, to our eyes, appears sparse sustenance. Their comeback to the environment to which they were perfectly adapted has been slow but steady, even though their numbers are minimal compared to those heady days.
The same is true for the fastest land animal of the Western Hemisphere which formerly had to outsprint the now-extinct American Cheetah.
Many generations have come and gone since Manifest Destiny stood as an unquestioned conviction, and we have tried to remedy some, though not all of our misguided beliefs. Just as bison have been returned to South Park, might the same be possible for the Utes, whose existence once was inextricably linked with them? In southwest Colorado, the Sleeping Ute Mountain dominates the scenery. According to Ute legend, one day the chief will rise from his slumber, and with him his people.
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