UTE CULTURALLY SCARRED TREES
By Celinda Reynolds Kaelin, Copyright 2003
Throughout traditional Ute ancestral lands, hundreds of culturally
scarred trees have been identified.
In the Pikes Peak area, these have been mapped and recorded
by the Pikes Peak Historical Society, the Florissant Fossil Beds
National Monument, Sanborn Western Camps/The Nature Place and
independent experts such as archaeologist Marilyn A. Martorano.
culturally scarred trees are of several different types:
(1) the Peeled Bark, or Medicine Trees, (2) the Bent or
Prayer Trees, (3) arborglyphs or Message Trees, and (4) burial
markers or Burial Trees.
In deference to the Ute Nation, I will use the terminology
that my Ute consultants use.
Their lexicon generally refers to the different trees by
Medicine Trees (peeled bark) are probably the most widely
recognized and studied.
They were first recorded by Lt. E.H. Ruffner of the United
States Corps of Engineers in an 1873 report to the Secretary of
was ordered to make a reconnaissance of the Ute country, and wrote
that the area around Camp 45 (between Lake City and Cochetopa
Pass) was covered with yellow pine.
“This pine is at largest 12 to 18 inches diameter, forty to
sixty feet high. Here
and there an old tree has escaped Indian knives and grown much
larger…The trail is well worn, and the peeled trees show that the
valley has been much frequented by Indians, but none of them had
been peeled within a year or two.”
seminal report “Ethnography of the Northern Ute,” Anne Smith
writes “Small strips of the inner bark of the pine were tied into
bundles and later eaten with salt.”
Wesley Powell spent the winter of 1868-1869 with the Ute Indians
in northwestern Colorado, near present day Meeker.
During this sojourn, he studied the language and customs of
his hosts, and recording his findings in a report to the Bureau of
spring of the year when the sap of the pine trees begins to flow
between the bark and the harder wood there appears a
muscillaginous substance which is destined to form an additional
growth to the tree.
This material is very sweet and probably affords much nourishment,
and this being a season when food is unusually scarce among the
Indians they often resort to this store to eke out a scanty
incision is made through the bark in a ring around the tree a
little higher than the collectors head and another near the
ground, then the intervening bark is stripped off and from the
inside a mucilaginous substance is scraped and eaten.
Sometimes the collector carries slabs of the bark into
camp. In one or two
instances I have know it to be mixed with the seeds and meal in
In 1996, while working on a
history of the Pikes Peak area, the Ute Cultural Affairs office
assigned Consultant A as my cultural liaison.
We corresponded for several years, and then in 1998,
finally met. I learned
that this person was a Spiritual Liaison (Medicine Man) during the
course of our interviews, and later I became his assistant as we
worked with the World Council of Elders.
our work in 1998, he requested a tour of the Pikes Peak area, with
a special emphasis on visiting the different Ute historic sites.
Among these were the culturally scarred trees on the
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument that had come to my
attention through the work of Marilyn Martorano.
When examining the first of the peeled bark trees,
Consultant A informed me that these trees were primarily used in
Ute healing ceremonies.
He explained that Creator sends all Medicine People
spiritual helpers from the natural world.
This spiritual guidance usually comes from animals, but
some people have “tree medicine,” or tree helpers. Anne Smith
reports similar attribution of spiritual powers in her
Ethnography. “Power to
cure came from dreams in which a particular animal or bird or
other source of power taught the dreamer the songs to use in
curing, the paraphernalia he should acquire and use, various
details of the ritual that should be followed in curing …”
some Ute Medicine People, then, the Tree People are their special
helpers. When they
need to do a healing, they will have a dream or a vision, and a
certain tree will speak to them.
They then go to this particular tree and make a small cut
(from about 6 to 12 inches) parallel to the ground, but at a
height on the tree that correlates to the location of illness on
the patient’s body. A
sharp stick is inserted into this cut, and is leveraged upward to
peel the bark away.
The inner layer of this bark is then used in a healing ceremony.
The fire for this ceremony is started with a cut section of
the exposed tree that is now acts like fat wood due to the
infusion of tree sap.
explanation of Medicine Trees expands and differs from the
documented sources, adding a special spiritual dimension.
The two accounts would seem to contradict one another.
However, there are several facts that I feel will integrate
and clarify the truth.
I will address the use of these trees as a food source.
There were approximately ten different Bands that comprised
the Ute Nation. Seven
of these Bands were in Colorado.
The territory of each band was carefully defined by
geography, and was respected by the other bands.
This respect for other’s boundaries was vital to
hunter-gathering societies, as any infringement could have serious
Harvesting certain animals and plants at specific times of the
year could be life-threatening if another band had already invaded
the area. The largest
of the Ute Bands, the Tabeguache (People of Sun Mountain), claimed
the area around Pikes Peak (Tava, or Sun Mountain).
Their band has been documented at between 3000 (in 1806)
and 1500 (in 1860).7
On the other hand, the inventory of peeled bark trees at
the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is less than 100.
The forest of Ponderosa pines in the immediate area of
these peeled-bark trees is largely orange-bark (very old).
In other words, the majority of trees surrounding the
peeled-bark trees dates from approximately the same time, but are
unscarred. There don’t
appear to be any stumps from cut trees.
Therefore, I feel that it is safe to presume that only
those trees that are scarred were used, and that there are no
missing scarred trees.
Fifty, or even 150, peeled-bark trees are hardly enough to feed
1500 to 3000 people.
This also presumes that all of these trees were utilized for food
at the same time interval, and fails to address the food needs of
such a large band over hundreds of years.
I will address the ethnographic documentation itself.
There is a great reluctance among the Ute to reveal any of
the deeper spiritual teachings.
I have been fortunate to work with Consultant A for over
five years as an assistant for his spiritual work.
None of the ethnographic sources cited for peeled-bark
trees had such entrée to Ute spirituality.
In fact, Anne Smith writes “most shamans were unwilling to
disclose the source of their power…”
Certainly Lt. Ruffner made no attempt to discern any spiritual
reason of the peeled-bark trees he encountered.
His mission was a blatant attempt by our government to
assess the mineral and agricultural potential of the Ute lands.
Powell’s ethnographic notes only skim the surface of Ute
spirituality, documenting a few charming legends and myths.
In his 29 page chapter on Ute religion he notes that
“…every tribe of savage men on the four quarters of the globe has
had a religion of its own and all the tribes and peoples that have
been swept away by the waves of time have had their religions and
so far as we have records of these religions one problem is common
to them all. This is
it. Why is it that the
sun moves through the firmament in an appointed way? …” 9
And this constitutes the main thrust of Powell’s
investigation and understanding of Ute spirituality.
It seems highly improbable that Powell’s Ute informants
would divulge their deepest spiritual secrets to an outsider who
considered them “savages” and gravely misunderstood them to be
be that Powell’s informants only told him part of the story; that
the bark of these trees was consumed, without the details of their
use in any ceremony.
Powell’s information is lacking in many respects.
His notes indicate that two cuts were made on the tree.
The population of Medicine Trees, however, reveals that
only one cut was usually made.
Powell also states that this incision was made “a little
higher than the collectors head…”
The population of Medicine Trees, however, reveals that the
height of these incisions varies greatly.
There is no norm.
This corroborates the testimony of Consultant A who stated
that the cut on the tree was made to correspond with the illness
in the patient’s body.
conclusion, then, the divergent views of peeled trees as a food
source or as a source of healing power may actually be mutually
to Consultant A, the healing ceremony from trees includes the
ingestion of the inner bark.
spring of 1997, I received notice from a resident concerned about
the cutting of Indian trees along Cedar Mountain Road in Teller
County.10 Later, when
I met with Irv Johnson, he informed me that he had previously
owned and operated a tree nursery, and therefore recognized the
bent trees along the roadside as very old, and probably marked by
the Indians. At his
tree farm they referred to such trees as “nurse trees” which were
bent parallel to the ground in order to graft young trees along
the trunk. The next
year, when Consultant A visited, I took him to see the bent tree
at milepost 5.7 on Cedar Mountain Road.
I had thought the trees to be trail markers, but I was
corrected. “These are
Prayer Trees used for ceremony.
On the way from Crystal Peak to Pikes Peak, the people had
to stop and pray four times.
A young sapling was selected at this point and bent
parallel to the ground where it was tied with a yucca rope.
Then everyone circled the tree and prayed, for they knew
the tree would live and hold their prayers for 800 years and each
breeze would give their prayers new breath.”11
Consultant A considered this to be such a sacred tree that
he declined to have his photo taken anywhere near the tree.
of 1999, I dreamed of a Ute woman, dressed in a long-fringed,
white buckskin dress, waiting for me at the base of a special
tree.12 The next
day, I visited the place seen in my dream and discovered a
beautiful Prayer Tree that also bore a medicine cut.
Then, on October 18, 1999, I met with Al Kane and several
representatives of the United States Forest Service on behalf of
the Pikes Peak Historical Society.
I took this group to this same tree in order to educate
them concerning Prayer Trees, hoping that the USFS would allow us
time to identify and save all culturally scarred trees in the
Sledgehammer project area near Lake George.
I also requested and received a letter from a Ute elder,
Consultant B, describing Prayer Trees and requesting our help in
trees tell who we are as Ute people.
As a child I had heard of the trees that were used in
ceremonies to bless our people but not actually seen them.
The shape of the trees has significance and the rope used
to tie them down is believed to be yucca and when it is tied it
leaves a ring of scaring in the tree trunk and is visible and
evident that a human being made the tie.
Next summer I had planned to bring a group of our youth to
witness the trees and make their offering.
Your area is our ancestral homeland.