The Aspen Historical Society, this month, reopened its exhibit focusing on the area’s previous dwellers, the Ute Indians. The popular exhibit features new artifacts from around Colorado. The idea is to educate people about the tribe’s history from hunting on the Western Slope to being forced out of the area and onto reservations. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen takes us on a tour.
The historic Wheeler/Stallard Museum on Aspen’s west-end is home for the exhibit called Seasons of the Nuche: Transitions of the Ute People. Nina Gabianelli is giving today’s tour. She’s the Vice President of Programming and Education at the Aspen Historical Society. She says at one time, the Ute nation included seven tribes across parts of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico.
"What this exhibit does is actually talk about the transitions they’ve gone through, from pre-contact to the early contact years with the Spanish and trappers, and then with the removal of them from Colorado and now, their lives today."
The exhibit weaves through the upper floor of the museum. You walk by black and white photographs, written timelines and several artifacts. The exhibit opened in 2012 and has won two national and one regional award for its leadership in history. Now, fifteen new artifacts are on display. Gabianelli points to a decorative, rawhide parfleche bag.
"We just put this new piece into the exhibit," says Gabianelli.
In the summer, when the tribe was hunting in the Roaring Fork Valley, they would use the bag to carry just about anything.
"Sometimes the bags are flat and sometimes they were round to be able to carry everything you need for a season (reporter - so, their version of a grocery bag?) Exactly. And, they would take the berries and nuts that they would dry, and meat from the animals that would dry or jerk."
The Utes moved out of the Valley and southwest in the winter, to warmer climates.
Another artifact on display is a musical instrument used in the ancient Bear Dance to celebrate the coming of spring. It’s a notched-out piece of wood called a “growler.”
"(It was) perhaps played with another piece of wood or a bone. Now, they use an ax handle and a metal pipe to make a little more noise. But, the noise is a “grrrr,” like the sound of a bear growling," says Gabianelli.
These cultural traditions are not well known in our region, where very few Ute Indians now live. In the late 1800’s they were forced from their territory onto three reservations in Utah and in southern Colorado. In the ensuing years, they were stripped of their traditions. Then in 1924, the U.S. government finally recognized native people as citizens.
Gabianelli says the exhibit is key in telling ALL of Aspen’s story.
"We are a 51 year old organization and this is the first time we’ve done a native peoples exhibit, that I know of. But, we really though the timing was right because enough people are willing to share their stories. I’m grateful that there are some people willing to share their wisdom and help us bridge the gap and educate our children now."
The exhibit was extended through spring of 2015 and it’s open year-round. The new artifacts are on loan from Colorado’s historical society, as well as the Museum of Northwest Colorado in Craig.