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Ute Indians are topic of Paonia library talk

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Photo submitted by Curtis Martin During his presentation at the Paonia Library, local archaeologist Curtis Martin will show slides of some of the few remaining wooden structures that the Utes constructed and left behind in the mountains and plateaus of th

Palisade archaeologist Curtis Martin will present "The Archaeology of the Ute Indians and Their Final Years in Western Colorado," at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 10, at the Paonia Public Library.

Martin is principal investigator for the Colorado Wickiup Project, a program of the Dominguez Archaeological Research Group (DARG). He has spent the last 13 years documenting wickiups and other temporary wooden structures left by the Ute people. In 2014 the project received the Governor's Award for its contribution to the state's history.

Martin is the author of, "Ephemeral Bounty: Wickiups, Trade Goods, and the Final Years of the Autonomous Ute" (University of Utah Press). The book is a study of the last remaining Ute wickiups, and the historic artifacts found with them through the Wickiup Project. Most of the remaining structures are between 125-300 years old, which is relatively recent in archaeological sites, said Martin.

The program will begin with an overview of the Ute people, where they came from and how long they were here. The Ute people were in this area when the Spanish explorers arrived in the 1600s, and were removed to reservations in the 1870s and 1880s to make way for settlers. Martin refers to that period as "the last chapter of the free-roaming, autonomous Utes." Following their final removal to reservations, Martin said that many remained on their traditional homelands in western Colorado or returned after finding life on the reservation unbearable.

About half of the structures included in the study are in northwestern and north central Colorado. In studying them, they have found that many of these structures were built after 1881. That goes against conventional knowledge that anything related to the Utes was made after the final removal, he said.

These sites are often mistaken for Euro-American sites left by cowboys and sheepherders. Within these sites they've discovered Ute artifacts, including European glass trade beads, tools and metal points, all of which have led to a greater understanding about late Ute culture.

There is other evidence that suggests the Utes remained after 1881, said Martin, including historic articles from Glenwood Springs. Evidence dates these sites into the 1800s and 1900s and as late as 1916. These are probably the most important findings of the Colorado Wickiup Project, said Martin. "Because the sites are so relatively young, some feel like people walked away from them yesterday. These sites are still alive."

The period covered in the Wickiup Project was a "dynamic period of time" for the Utes, said Martin. The introduction of horses changed their lives almost overnight. At the same time they were introduced to metal and glass beads and guns "and a bounty of new stuff." At the same time they were getting pushed off of their land, a period he called an "under-studied and overlooked part of their history."

"We feel like we've just touched the surface of the subject," said Martin. They would like to think they've documented about 10 percent of the remaining structures. Temporary shelters aren't unique and have been made throughout the world for tens of thousands of years, but they are fast disappearing. As his book implies, they are ephemeral. "We're in a race with time," he said. He and archaeologist Sonny Shelton plan to continue the study and are currently writing proposals. They plan next to revisit some of the sites that Martin describes as "ones that aren't faring too well."

The project consults with the Utes, the Uintah and Ouray Utes in particular, as often as possible. To investigate and document the sites, "We have to have their blessing," he said.

Martin earned a master's degree in archaeology from University of Colorado Boulder, then spent three summers at Mesa Verde. He documented cultural sites for the Colorado Department of Highways (now CDOT), which lead him to western Colorado in the late 1970s. He currently teaches archaeology at Colorado Mesa University. The subject of wickiup sites is very popular with students, he said. He calls it a tangible form of archaeology, "like finding an old cabin." In his 45 years as an archaeologist, Martin said this is the most exciting thing he's ever seen.

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