Colorado Wickiup Project wins Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation |

Colorado Wickiup Project wins Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation

Sharon Sullivan
Grand Junction archaeologist Curtis Martin is shown photographing a wickiup in central Colorado.
Submitted photo |

Ancient teepee-like wooden structures made from small tree trunks and branches are prevalent throughout western Colorado’s central and northern regions. Constructed from pinon-juniper, or at higher elevations, aspen trees, these “wickiups” provide evidence of when the Ute Indians roamed western Colorado.

“Because the remaining, existing examples of these wickiups, tree platforms and brush corrals are in west central and northwest Colorado, we know it is the last place they lived before they were removed to reservations in Utah,” in 1881, archaeologist and Colorado Wickiup Project principal investigator Curtis Martin said.

Wickiups are smaller than teepees, standing about six or seven feet tall, with room to hold three or four people.

“They were sleeping rooms, not houses,” Martin said. “People used them to get out of the weather for a night, a few weeks, possibly a season — then they left them behind. They were moving people. They moved all the time.”

The Colorado Wickiup Project — a collaboration of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and Dominguez Archaeological Research Group — was awarded the 12th annual Stephen H. Hart Governor’s Award, given each year to recognize outstanding projects in archaeology and historic preservation throughout Colorado.

Martin accepted the award on behalf of DARG, at an awards ceremony at the History Colorado Center in Denver, Feb. 5.

The Dominguez Archaeological Research Group began documenting the prehistoric/historic aboriginal wooden structures in 2003, with funding support from the BLM and the State Historical Fund. Since then, Martin and his team have recorded 422 aboriginal wooden features at 84 archaeological sites throughout Colorado.

It wasn’t until metal axes became available through trade with Spanish explorers in the 1800s that archaeologists were able to uncover additional details about the Utes.

“We can see the ax cuts on these poles,” Martin said. “Then we can get the date (through tree-ring dating) when the Indians cut down and used (the branches). It gives us a target date.”

Being able to accurately date the wickiups presented a surprise to the researchers — something Martin said is one of the group’s most important findings. About half of the tree-ring dating is later than what government officials called “the final removal of the Utes,” Martin said.

“That means a whole bunch of them didn’t show up for the forced removal to Utah,” he said.

“Others went to the reservation, found deplorable conditions and moved back to traditional homelands — either for hunting trips or to live out the rest of their lives.”

DARG grew out of Grande River Institute, a Grand Junction archaeological firm that searches for archaeological sites in threatened areas. In 2003, Grande River Institute owner Carl Conner established the nonprofit DARG to search for and document the wickiups.

Investigators were surprised and excited to learn of the large number of wickiups in Colorado, Martin said.

“Our goal is to record all these North American wooden features,” as long as financial support continues, Martin said.

“We also need the support of the Ute tribes,” he added.

“It’s all about them. It’s all about learning about that last chapter of the autonomous Ute people before the white man came and corralled them, put them on a reservation and began monitoring their every move on the reservation.”

Tom Carr, senior staff archaeologist with History Colorado, said his office nominated the Colorado Wickiup Project for the award because of its multi-disciplinary approach in studying these “ephemeral resources.”

“The older wickiups are gone,” Carr said. “This is our last chance to study the (remaining wickiups) from the 1800s, before they’re gone.”

Archaeologists know that Utes lived in Colorado as early as 1500 AD, though those wickiups are long gone, Martin said. DARG has recorded what they believe to be wickiups dating back to 1750.

The Governor’s award is a real honor, Carr said.

“It’s a statement on how important the relationship is between tribes, the state, private researchers and federal agencies, he said. “It shows how much good can be done when we all work together.”

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