The Ute Indian Museum – a great place to start when exploring the Western Slope | TheFencePost.com

The Ute Indian Museum – a great place to start when exploring the Western Slope

Carolyn White
Olathe, Colo.

Reproduction tipis have been set up on the museum grounds. These are open to the public.

The Ute Indian museum in Montrose, Colo., is unique because “it’s dedicated to one tribe,” according to the director, C.J. Brafford, and “offers one of the most complete collections and exhibits featuring the Ute people.” The 8.65-acre property is actually part of the original 500 acres that were homesteaded by Chief Ouray – a well-respected peacemaker between Indians and white settlers – and his wife, Chipeta, who took over as diplomat after his death in 1880.

The first things that visitors notice are the five, authentically-reproduced teepees, which have been set up against a magnificent backdrop of the San Juan Mountains. During a stroll through the Chief Ouray Memorial Park, which has been generously landscaped with shade trees, picnic tables and walking paths, one will find a native plants garden; Chipeta’s crypt; the grave of Chief John McCook (her brother); a boardwalk to the Uncompahgre River; and even a memorial to the Spanish conquistadors, who passed through this area in 1776.

The history of the location literally fills you, inside and out. Within the building, visitors can admire eagle-feather head dresses; hand-stitched buckskin coats and leggings, dresses, cradleboards, blankets, belts, and moccasins, bridles, pack saddles, and saddlebags. Among the more personal items, you’ll find one of Ouray’s shirts that was made by Chipteta; the black wool “council robe” of Ignacio (Chief from 1880-1920); and a vest that was worn by “Buckskin Charlie,” Chief of the Mouache band of Utes. Almost everything – down to the simplest of pouches – has been decorated with stunning, intricate, and colorful beadwork.

One of the oldest belongings in the building, which C.J. – herself an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation – carried very gently into her office was an early 1800s water vessel. Describing the intricate process of how it was made, she explained, “Ponderosa pine sap was boiled down and then mixed with dirt clots to make glue. That glue was then used as a coating inside the woven willow bark. And,” she added with a smile, “it doesn’t leak.”

Dedicated to keeping those ancient skills alive, the museum sponsors a wide variety of classes, cultural festivals and events. Children from ages 4-8, for example, can take lessons in sign language using animals for aids. (“Beaver,” C.J. demonstrated, lightly slapping the back of one hand “are represented this way.”) Another creative option for kids is to practice making miniature teepees using 8-inch sticks, and then painting their own symbols and designs on the “hides.” Adults can try their skills at porcupine quill and bead work or, bringing their own bowls, master the knack of cooking “fry breads.” Because it’s open year ’round, there’s an ever-evolving assortment of programs to choose from: What’s important is that “all of them are aimed at helping to build a cultural bridge.”

Due in part to the adjoining Montrose Visitors Information Center (which was added after a recent renovation) that bridge has been crossed by an astonishing number of out-of-state visitors. “Over 17,000 people from 44 different countries were represented in the 2010 fiscal year,” employee Olivia Milton-Piatek told me. “They look up museums on the Internet before traveling to get a feel for the area.” As if on cue, several different groups wandered into the building while we were talking, pausing to sign the guest book before starting their tours (I recognized accents from Japan, Germany, and Australia, alone). Olivia continued, “This one gives them an up-close look into a culture that most have never been exposed to.”

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Some of those newcomers lingered in the gift shop for awhile to choose souvenir books, pictures, clothing, or Native-made jewelry, while others immediately took seats in the small theater to watch a 15-minute introductory movie on the customs, dances, and beliefs of the Native American community. Most, however, went immediately towards the display cases and began peering through the glass. Even for those of us who are lucky enough to live in Colorado, the Ute Indian Museum opens up a wonderful new window into a fascinating culture. As a bonus, with its large variety of places-of-interest brochures, the Information Center helps travelers to plan for future adventures on the Western Slope.

The museum is located three miles south of Montrose at the intersection of Colo. 550 and 17253 Chipeta Road. Winter hours for November and December will be Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. To arrange tours, obtain class schedules, or hear more about upcoming events, call (970) 249-3098.

An open house and Indian Market has been scheduled for the first Saturday in December. In addition to the arts, crafts, and food that will be for sale, there will also be a silent auction plus a special raffle on an authentic Navajo rug.

Additional hours: January through May, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and Sundays from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

June through October, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and Sundays from 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

The Ute Indian museum in Montrose, Colo., is unique because “it’s dedicated to one tribe,” according to the director, C.J. Brafford, and “offers one of the most complete collections and exhibits featuring the Ute people.” The 8.65-acre property is actually part of the original 500 acres that were homesteaded by Chief Ouray – a well-respected peacemaker between Indians and white settlers – and his wife, Chipeta, who took over as diplomat after his death in 1880.

The first things that visitors notice are the five, authentically-reproduced teepees, which have been set up against a magnificent backdrop of the San Juan Mountains. During a stroll through the Chief Ouray Memorial Park, which has been generously landscaped with shade trees, picnic tables and walking paths, one will find a native plants garden; Chipeta’s crypt; the grave of Chief John McCook (her brother); a boardwalk to the Uncompahgre River; and even a memorial to the Spanish conquistadors, who passed through this area in 1776.

The history of the location literally fills you, inside and out. Within the building, visitors can admire eagle-feather head dresses; hand-stitched buckskin coats and leggings, dresses, cradleboards, blankets, belts, and moccasins, bridles, pack saddles, and saddlebags. Among the more personal items, you’ll find one of Ouray’s shirts that was made by Chipteta; the black wool “council robe” of Ignacio (Chief from 1880-1920); and a vest that was worn by “Buckskin Charlie,” Chief of the Mouache band of Utes. Almost everything – down to the simplest of pouches – has been decorated with stunning, intricate, and colorful beadwork.

One of the oldest belongings in the building, which C.J. – herself an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation – carried very gently into her office was an early 1800s water vessel. Describing the intricate process of how it was made, she explained, “Ponderosa pine sap was boiled down and then mixed with dirt clots to make glue. That glue was then used as a coating inside the woven willow bark. And,” she added with a smile, “it doesn’t leak.”

Dedicated to keeping those ancient skills alive, the museum sponsors a wide variety of classes, cultural festivals and events. Children from ages 4-8, for example, can take lessons in sign language using animals for aids. (“Beaver,” C.J. demonstrated, lightly slapping the back of one hand “are represented this way.”) Another creative option for kids is to practice making miniature teepees using 8-inch sticks, and then painting their own symbols and designs on the “hides.” Adults can try their skills at porcupine quill and bead work or, bringing their own bowls, master the knack of cooking “fry breads.” Because it’s open year ’round, there’s an ever-evolving assortment of programs to choose from: What’s important is that “all of them are aimed at helping to build a cultural bridge.”

Due in part to the adjoining Montrose Visitors Information Center (which was added after a recent renovation) that bridge has been crossed by an astonishing number of out-of-state visitors. “Over 17,000 people from 44 different countries were represented in the 2010 fiscal year,” employee Olivia Milton-Piatek told me. “They look up museums on the Internet before traveling to get a feel for the area.” As if on cue, several different groups wandered into the building while we were talking, pausing to sign the guest book before starting their tours (I recognized accents from Japan, Germany, and Australia, alone). Olivia continued, “This one gives them an up-close look into a culture that most have never been exposed to.”

Some of those newcomers lingered in the gift shop for awhile to choose souvenir books, pictures, clothing, or Native-made jewelry, while others immediately took seats in the small theater to watch a 15-minute introductory movie on the customs, dances, and beliefs of the Native American community. Most, however, went immediately towards the display cases and began peering through the glass. Even for those of us who are lucky enough to live in Colorado, the Ute Indian Museum opens up a wonderful new window into a fascinating culture. As a bonus, with its large variety of places-of-interest brochures, the Information Center helps travelers to plan for future adventures on the Western Slope.

The museum is located three miles south of Montrose at the intersection of Colo. 550 and 17253 Chipeta Road. Winter hours for November and December will be Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. To arrange tours, obtain class schedules, or hear more about upcoming events, call (970) 249-3098.

An open house and Indian Market has been scheduled for the first Saturday in December. In addition to the arts, crafts, and food that will be for sale, there will also be a silent auction plus a special raffle on an authentic Navajo rug.

Additional hours: January through May, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and Sundays from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

June through October, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and Sundays from 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m.