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Spirit trees: Utes’ legacy to Huerfano County

September 21, 2016

by Kay Beth Avery

This burial tree was photographed by Susanne and Terry Broomfield.
This burial tree was photographed by Susanne and Terry Broomfield.

HUERFANO — Did you know Ute bands lived within the San Luis and Huerfano Valleys many centuries prior to Colorado becoming a state? The Utes traveled seasonally through these ancestral homelands to hunt game, bathe in the hot springs, harvest piñon nuts and other foods, and to participate in annual celebrations, such as the four-day Bear Dance.

Some of the strongest evidence of those centuries of occupancy can still be seen in the culturally modified trees (CMTs) that dot our foothills and forests. John Wesley Anderson, retired El Paso County Sheriff, historian, and author, will be presenting an exciting program about this very subject. “Spirit Trees: Utes’ Legacy to Huerfano County” will begin at 7 pm in the La Veta Public Library on the evening of Thursday, September 29. The Huerfano County Historical Society and the La Veta Library are co-sponsoring this event. They are seeking a minimum donation of $5 per person to defray speaker costs.

The evening promises to be quite entertaining, for Anderson has a reputation as a dynamic speaker and a leading authority on CMTs within the southern Colorado region. He is particularly interested in trees shaped to form prayer offerings to Senawahv (the Great Creator). “I think Ute Indian prayer trees are living Native American artifacts that offer us an intriguing link back in time to a deeply spiritual people with rich culture and a long history,” he states. Many Ute prayer trees can still be found today that were cultivated between 150-450 years ago.

To shape the trees, the Utes and other Native Americans tied saplings in the way they wanted the trees to grow, using ropes made from yucca fiber. These trees were modified for many reasons: to make medicine, gather food, send messages, mark trails, designate a burial site, offer prayers, and forecast prophecies.

Medicine or peeled bark trees (usually pine) are probably the most widely recognized and studied of all the CMTs. Using a sharp stick, the Utes peeled back the bark of the tree and scraped out the sap to use in a healing ceremony or to mix with grains in preparing a mush. At times when wild game was scarce, Native Americans used the inner bark of the trees for sustenance.

Message trees and trail markers served as sign posts telling a story or pointing the traveler in the right direction to find significant topographical features (such as hidden underground water or the best path over the mountain). These trees could be ponderosa, juniper, cottonwood, or even aspen, depending on what kind of material was available. For example, one set of pictures carved into a stand of aspens located west of the Continental Divide tells about a fire that burned a tribe’s hunting grounds and the tribe’s migration toward greener pastures.

Burial trees were often cedar because cedar trees were thought to have benevolent spiritual qualities to counteract negative forces. A burial tree displays two 90 degree bends and clearly visible ligature marks. Burial trees suggest that we were born of the earth, walk the earth during our lifetimes, and then one day join our Creator to walk with heavenly spirits.

Prayer and prophecy trees are native scarred trees that have been bent and twisted into unusual forms for the purpose of guidance and spiritualism. The Utes believed that a good prayer tree could live and hold prayers for as long as eight hundred years. On these trees, ligature marks abound, for it took decades and multiple generations to modify the tree to the desired shape.

Huerfano County Historical Society Membership forms will be available to initiate or renew membership through December 31, 2017. HCHS members are entitled to reduced admission to the organization’s historical talks and tours, free admission to local historical museums, discounts on museum gift shop items, quarterly newsletters, and an opportunity to network with other Huerfano history lovers.

For more details on Huerfano County’s culturally modified trees, go to or search Cuchara Foundation on Facebook.

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