Plants – we all have a relationship with them. This bond with nature is an integral part of the cultures of many indigenous people, and the use of native plants by the Ute People of Western Colorado is particularly engaging. This traditional use of plants for medicinal, cultural, and culinary purposes by native peoples is called ethnobotany.
The Ute people thrived for thousands of years in the harsh climate conditions of Western Colorado by moving from ecosystem to ecosystem as food became available. Many of plants they relied on are still commonly found on local public lands and are still used in traditional Ute Ceremonies. One such plant seen along the lower elevations of Grand Mesa and the Uncompahgre Plateau is the Banana Yucca. Its fruit, flowers, and stalks are edible and fibers stripped from the leaves were braided and made into twine. Every part of the common Utah Juniper also had a use. The Utes used its bark for sandals, thatching, woven bags, and rope. The leaves and berries are high in vitamin C, offering a natural boost to immune systems. The Coyote Willow grows commonly along many of the creeks and rivers here in Western Colorado. Ute people made willow bark tea for headaches, fever, pain, and inflammation; it contains salicylic acid, the main ingredient of aspirin. Another plant historically used by the Ute people was the Pinyon Pine which offers both high calorie, nutritious nuts in the fall and pitch used for waterproofing water baskets. A common desert bush, Mormon Tea, was used as a medicinal drink to treat a cough or cold and also as a stimulant similar to caffeine. And of course, the Big Sagebrush was used as a medicine for stomach problems and infection, and as a cleansing incense during spiritual ceremonies.
It is a joy to share this special plant knowledge with young people, and there are several places on the Western Slope that provide easy access to learn about traditional uses of native plants: The Ute Museum in Montrose, the Ute Learning and Ethnobotany Garden in Grand Junction, and Colorado Canyons Association, the local education team for the Bureau of Land Management.
The Ute Museum, located at 17253 Chipeta Road, Montrose, was established in 1956 near the ranch of Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta. Open seven days a week, it has many award winning indoor and outdoor exhibits, virtual field trips, and “History Take Out” where their educational coordinator can bring lessons to the classroom. Included in the outdoor exhibits is a native plant garden that combines the plant knowledge of the Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Tribe, and the Ute Indian Tribe of Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah. More about the Ute Museum can be found at historycolorado.org/ute-indian-museum.
The Ute Learning Garden, also called the Clifford Duncan Memorial Garden, in Grand Junction is located at the CSU Extension office for the Tri-River Area at 2775 Highway 50. It is designed to familiarize students and visitors with native plants used by the Ute people, the movement of the Utes through various life zones, and the relationship between the Utes and the land. Working with the Ute Museum, the Ute Learning Garden was established in 2009 as part of the Ute Ethnobotany Project, seeking to preserve the traditional plant knowledge of the Ute people. A brochure about the Ute Learning Garden can be found at https://tra.extension.colostate.edu/gardening-hort/.
Colorado Canyons Association (CCA), in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, is developing a “Junior Ranger Program” for the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area and the McInnis National Conservation Area. Learners of all ages can earn badges by completing questions in the information packets, based on age. Each packet provided resources to use along the trail while learning about native plants, geology, and animal as well as human impacts on these public lands. More information can be found at cca.org.
So, gather your young ones and share some valuable time together learning more about the original inhabitants of the Western Slope, the Utes, and their use of native plants through these amazing local resources!
Friends of Youth and Nature is a non-profit that promotes opportunities for youth and families to get outside, experience outdoor activities, and explore nature. To learn more, visit: www.friendsofyouthandnature.org