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History of Jones Park and the Colorful Characters

that Pioneered the Cheyenne Canyon 

 Colorado Springs, Colorado 





History of the Indian Presence




Ute Indian Presence


Stratton Ute Prayer Tree


Legend has it that the Stratton Ute Tree is primarily a "prayer tree" that the Utes tied down to create a misaligned growth so that one branch pointed to Pikes Peak (the god Manitou) and the other to the Garden of the Gods.

The Utes would then place their prayers in the trunks of the bent trees to be delivered to the sky and spiritual places for as long as the tree lived.

Examination of the Stratton Ute Holy Tree indicates some evidence of both medicine and prayer tree usage. Facts are unclear on the significances of cuts and bark removal but both may have indicated use as a medicine tree.

Trees in the Pikes Peak region have been identified as types the functioned for: medicine, prayer, burial and message, The Florissant Fossil Beds and Black Forest contain other examples of cultural trees.

My primary source for knowledge of cultural trees is:


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.


These 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 functionality.

Medicine Trees


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 War.1   Ruffner 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.”


In her 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.”


John 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 American Ethnology.


In the 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 subsistence.  An 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 preparing mush.


 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.


During 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 …”


For 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.


This 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.


First, 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 consequences.  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.


Second, 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 “worshipping beasts.”


It may 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.


In conclusion, then, the divergent views of peeled trees as a food source or as a source of healing power may actually be mutually inclusive.  According to Consultant A, the healing ceremony from trees includes the ingestion of the inner bark.




In the 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.


In May 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 protecting them.


“The 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.