We know that the Pikes Peak region was populated by Indian tribes since ancient times. The mysterious people known as Paleo-Indians, whom some believe were actually Europeans known as Solutreans, inhabited the area 10,000-14,000 years ago. Native peoples have lived here ever since. Where humans dwell for such a long period they are bound to leave cultural traces.
This is certainly true for this part of Colorado. Native Americans left traces of their presence and had their own versions of civilization, even if we are not used to think of them as “civilized.” To us “civilization” usually means technological capacities, something the Indians did not have. But they had other capacities. Native civilizations were shaped by their distinctive cultures, which we acknowledge as different from our own.
Human beings create culture. It is not a racial or genetic thing. Culture defines ethnicity, different from the ambiguous term, “race,” which refers to physical characteristics. Over time the collective knowledge embodied in beliefs, values, attitudes and religions creates culture. Culture determines lifestyles, specifically how material objects are viewed and how they are used. “Prayer trees” had unique uses among the Ute Indians. Along with other scholars, John Anderson posits that the Ute Indians, the tribe that is best known in this region and who have lived here for the last 500-700 years, altered the shapes of mainly Ponderosa pines.
The Utes saw the trees, which we consider material objects to be used in a utilitarian fashion, in a radically different way from the way Euro-Americans see them. The Utes have left hundreds of “prayer trees,” or “culturally modified trees,” scattered over a wide expanse. If the trees are indeed culturally modified, and all indications seem to point that way, then they are a prime example of how Ute culture is so different from ours.
What was the mindset of the Utes? Generally, they believed in what is called “animism,” a system which connects humans and nature in an inescapable web of life. Animism is actually the most common religion in the world. While animism is not pantheism, animists believe that everything is animated by spirit. Humans, animals, birds, rocks, the sky, mountains, the earth herself, weather phenomenon, and of course, trees, all have their own spirits. This makes everything sacred because life is sacred and for the animist everything is alive. There is no distinction between animate and inanimate objects, no acquisitiveness or exploitation of earth and her resources, no selfish individualism, because we are all one.
This has a direct bearing on the prayer trees. The way the trees fit into the grand scheme of things is that they are alive. Like everything alive, they have their special purpose. It is up to humans to divine that purpose and then to reverently assist the trees to fulfill that purpose and in doing so the trees help the people to fulfill theirs. We can assume that this is one reason the Utes modified the trees and which may explain why there are so many of them.
Former El Paso County Sheriff John Anderson has explored our area and discovered many of the prayer trees. In his book, “Native American Prayer Trees of Colorado,” he writes that the Utes modified trees for navigational, medicinal, burial, educational and spiritual purposes.
This happened in our area, where the Utes held sway long before the arrival of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches, Spaniards, Mexicans and Anglos.
A trip to northern El Paso County’s Fox Run Park reveals trail marker trees, burial site trees, summer solstice trees, and trees bent so that they point at Tava, the sacred Sun Mountain, as the Utes called Pikes Peak. All of the trees that Anderson points out are very old, even the smaller in circumference, as indicated by tree ring analysis. Some might claim that wind, fire, snow, even porcupines altered the Ponderosas into their strange shapes. But the tie marks and the bark scrapings are still visible, as are the twisted trunks pointing in culturally significant directions.
We can imagine that 500-700 years of Ute presence in this land was more than enough time for them to change the trees and the landscape, however sensitively it was done.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, a lecturer in U.S. Southwest history, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.