Those who know trees, especially cottonwood trees, have said for years that it is "just a matter of time" when the Ute Council Tree gives up its last vestige of life in its limbs and succumbs eventually to the whims of nature. Such appears to have been the fate of this historic tree in 2017.
Estimated to be about 215 years old (in 2015), this old tree has been a survivor. The Ute Council Tree was originally one of several trees in a cottonwood grove, and must have been magnificent even as a young tree to have been singled out by the Ute Indians of the area prior to 1881 as a tree under which tribal councils would be held. Or was it? Think back to 1868, when the Consolidated Ute Indian Reservation was created. This tree, assuming it took seed in about 1802, would have been only 66 years old, making it likely to be quite normal in size and probably unimposing as it stood in a grove of similar trees. So what was its magic? Was it the shade provided by the branches, or was it simply in the right place? It had to have been something significant to have captured the cultural importance it has held for so many years, and if not cultural importance, what was it about the tree that captured the imagination of our early settlers such that this tree became known as the Ute Council Tree?
History has not recorded the earliest mention of this great tree as a place of cultural significance to the Ute Indians. But many writers, even legitimate historians, have recorded the fact that Chief Ouray, when in this area, would hold council at or near this particular tree, and that his wife, Chipeta, was usually present during such meetings, an honor seldom, if ever, bestowed on any other female Ute.
The fact that Ute cultural history such as that noted above has been written so many times in our contemporary writings does not make it true. Like much of our "inaccurate" history, it took only one writer to document his or her version of an event, and before you know it, it suddenly appears in future writings endlessly as the factual evidence of an event.
It is unlikely that the Utes ever saw this tree for the importance that our early pioneer settlers attached to it. Ute tradition, from the Ute perspective, is in denial that Chief Ouray ever held council at the Ute Council Tree. Chief Ouray lived just south of present-day Montrose and his council "meetings" were customarily held there or at the Ute Indian Agency. Ouray was "chief" of the Ute bands only because he spoke broken English and could be understood by U.S. government negotiators or Indian agents. The title chief was bestowed upon Ouray by the U.S. government, and had no connection to any kind of an election by the seven Ute bands in existence then. In fact, Ouray was not particularly liked by his peers, and at least five attempts were made by fellow Utes to kill him. Each time, the Ute perpetrator was killed by Ouray.
There seems to be ample evidence that the area dominated by the Ute Council Tree was, in fact, a place where Utes camped, since an early Indian trail reportedly passed nearby. But the tree also sits in an early flood plain, for when the Gunnison River overflowed its banks during early spring thaws, the place we call North Delta today could not have been easily reached from the south side of the river. There was no bridge nearby until 1882, and the Utes were long gone by then.
A number of early writings have repeatedly claimed that white settlers met under this tree at council with the Utes to work out differences or even to negotiate treaties. There is no factual evidence that this ever happened. While there may have been a few pioneer settlers in the area prior to the Ute eviction in late August 1881, they were only there at the pleasure of the Utes and would have been traders or people to whom the Utes saw some benefit in having around. Other pioneer settlers, when confronted by the Indians, got the message that they were not welcome. In fact, our pioneer settlers were restricted from entering the Consolidated Ute Indian Reservation, which at the time encompassed almost the entire Western Slope of Colorado.
Perhaps the first official recognition of the importance of this tree was made by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, D.A.R., when, in 1930, they placed a plaque affixed to the tree which stated:
THE UTE COUNCIL TREE
MARKED BY THE
CAPT. JOHN GUNNISON
IN MEMORY OF
CHIEF OURAY AND
The bronze plaque stayed in place for over 75 years, but was removed -- or stolen -- sometime in 2004.
Cloned for Survival
While steps have been taken over the years to prolong the life of this particular tree, other steps have been taken to make sure that the soul and spirit of this tree endures by periodically taking cuttings from the branches still attached to the tree.
Thus it was on April 18, 1991, that the first cuttings were taken and shipped to the American Forestry Association, where they were carefully nurtured to provide seedlings for the America's Historic Forests project. In this project, hundreds of trees are being gathered; among them descendants of the Helen Keller Oak, the Treaty Oak in Jacksonville, Fla., maple trees from Valley Forge and cottonwoods from a grove where Lewis and Clark and their band of explorers met with a group of friendly Indians on the Montana prairie.
A year later, additional cuttings were taken in August 1991 by the American Forestry Association. The status of those cuttings is unknown.
Cuttings were taken again in April 1994 by the Delta Tree Board. On this occasion, the cuttings were sent to the U.S. Forest Service's Bessey Nursery in Halsey, Neb. Other samples were sent to a nursery in Jacksonville, Fla., where earlier cuttings (the 1991 cuttings) had failed to root and grow.
Also in 1994, at least 20 cuttings were taken by Eugene Naranjo, who at the time was on the executive committee and a member of the Council Tree Pow Wow committee. He took the cuttings back to the Southern Ute forestry department where they were nurtured into viable saplings. He returned the 10 best saplings to Delta in the year 2000, where seven of them were planted around the Pow Wow arbor during the Pow Wow festival, each to represent one of the original seven Ute bands. A sapling was also presented to the three Ute tribes at the Pow Wow, and each was to be planted on their home reservation.
In 1952, the Ute Council Tree was nominated to the Colorado Hall of Fame for trees by Edith Castle Parker, regent of the Captain John Gunnison chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It was also listed in the Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.
In 1962, the tree was listed in the registry of Famous and Historic Trees of the United States.
Then in 2000, the Ute Council Tree received the Millennium Landmark Tree award which was presented during the Council Tree Pow Wow in September. One tree from each of the 50 United States was selected for the award, and the Ute Council Tree was designated as Colorado's landmark tree.
Slabs from the tree removed on Aug. 25 will be available to the public at a modest cost. Portions of the tree are also being set aside for the Utes. The lower 25 feet of the tree, which at shoulder height is 91 inches in diameter, will be turned into a memorial of some type. The memorial was originally anticipated to be 10-12 feet in height, but more of the trunk was left at the recommendation of the Utes. Suggestions are being welcomed by the Delta County Historical Society at 874-8721.
This article is excerpted from "The Ute Council Tree: Fact or Legend," available at the museum for $10.
As a young tree I watched the Utes come and go,
I have heard the laughter, the singing, the tired groans
and the crying of the little ones,
I have witnessed the young ones as they played and
jumped from my young branches,
I have listened to the songs of the elders as the winters move on and give way to the spring and the happy sounds
of the spring Bear Dance,
I have sheltered the Utes as they hold Council beneath my branches, the leaders speaking with wisdom and foresight,
the young warriors talking of war to protect their
hunting grounds and the Ute way of life,
I have stood here by the river for many winters since the sounds of anguish and sobbing of the Utes as they
passed under my branches for the last time
leaving the Shining Mountains,
I have stood here listening and watching development
grow around my branches,
I heard a familiar sound of long ago and strain my
branches to hear more,
I hear the sounds of Drums long forgotten in this valley,
I hear the singing of the Flag Song, Round Dance, Bear Dance
and songs that make my leaves flutter in the wind,
I again see and hear the sounds of laughter and
talking of the Utes,
I am overjoyed to see the Utes are back dancing,
singing, and visiting with relatives,
I stand proud as do the Elders who watch from
among my old branches,
I am the Council Tree.
By Roland McCook Sr.