Ute Culturally Scarred Trees

By Celinda Reynolds Kaelin, Copyright 2003
Throughout traditional Ute ancestral lands, hundreds of culturally scarred trees have been identified. In the Pikes Peak area, these have been mapped and recorded by the Pikes Peak Historical Society, the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Sanborn Western Camps/The Nature Place and independent experts such as archaeologist Marilyn A. Martorano.
These culturally scarred trees are of several different types: (1) the Peeled Bark, or Medicine Trees, (2) the Bent or Prayer Trees, (3) arborglyphs or Message Trees, and (4) burial markers or Burial Trees. In deference to the Ute Nation, I will use the terminology that my Ute consultants use. Their lexicon generally refers to the different trees by functionality.
Medicine Trees (peeled bark) are probably the most widely recognized and studied. They were first recorded by Lt. E.H. Ruffner of the United States Corps of Engineers in an 1873 report to the Secretary of War.1 Ruffner was ordered to make a reconnaissance of the Ute country, and wrote that the area around Camp 45 (between Lake City and Cochetopa Pass) was covered with yellow pine. “This pine is at largest 12 to 18 inches diameter, forty to sixty feet high. Here and there an old tree has escaped Indian knives and grown much larger…The trail is well worn, and the peeled trees show that the valley has been much frequented by Indians, but none of them had been peeled within a year or two.”
In her seminal report “Ethnography of the Northern Ute,” Anne Smith writes “Small strips of the inner bark of the pine were tied into bundles and later eaten with salt.”2
John Wesley Powell spent the winter of 1868-1869 with the Ute Indians in northwestern Colorado, near present day Meeker. During this sojourn, he studied the language and customs of his hosts, and recording his findings in a report to the Bureau of American Ethnology.3
In the spring of the year when the sap of the pine trees begins to flow between the bark and the harder wood there appears a muscillaginous substance which is destined to form an additional growth to the tree. This material is very sweet and probably affords much nourishment, and this being a season when food is unusually scarce among the Indians they often resort to this store to eke out a scanty subsistence. An incision is made through the bark in a ring around the tree a little higher than the collectors head and another near the ground, then the intervening bark is stripped off and from the inside a mucilaginous substance is scraped and eaten. Sometimes the collector carries slabs of the bark into camp. In one or two instances I have know it to be mixed with the seeds and meal in preparing mush.
In 1996, while working on a history of the Pikes Peak area, the Ute Cultural Affairs office assigned Consultant A as my cultural liaison. We corresponded for several years, and then in 1998, finally met. I learned that this person was a Spiritual Liaison (Medicine Man) during the course of our interviews, and later I became his assistant as we worked with the World Council of Elders.
During our work in 1998, he requested a tour of the Pikes Peak area, with a special emphasis on visiting the different Ute historic sites. Among these were the culturally scarred trees on the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument that had come to my attention through the work of Marilyn Martorano. When examining the first of the peeled bark trees, Consultant A informed me that these trees were primarily used in Ute healing ceremonies.4 He explained that Creator sends all Medicine People spiritual helpers from the natural world. This spiritual guidance usually comes from animals, but some people have “tree medicine,” or tree helpers. Anne Smith reports similar attribution of spiritual powers in her Ethnography. “Power to cure came from dreams in which a particular animal or bird or other source of power taught the dreamer the songs to use in curing, the paraphernalia he should acquire and use, various details of the ritual that should be followed in curing …”5
For some Ute Medicine People, then, the Tree People are their special helpers. When they need to do a healing, they will have a dream or a vision, and a certain tree will speak to them. They then go to this particular tree and make a small cut (from about 6 to 12 inches) parallel to the ground, but at a height on the tree that correlates to the location of illness on the patient’s body. A sharp stick is inserted into this cut, and is leveraged upward to peel the bark away. The inner layer of this bark is then used in a healing ceremony. The fire for this ceremony is started with a cut section of the exposed tree that is now acts like fat wood due to the infusion of tree sap.6
This explanation of Medicine Trees expands and differs from the documented sources, adding a special spiritual dimension. The two accounts would seem to contradict one another. However, there are several facts that I feel will integrate and clarify the truth.
First, I will address the use of these trees as a food source. There were approximately ten different Bands that comprised the Ute Nation. Seven of these Bands were in Colorado. The territory of each band was carefully defined by geography, and was respected by the other bands. This respect for other’s boundaries was vital to hunter-gathering societies, as any infringement could have serious consequences. Harvesting certain animals and plants at specific times of the year could be life-threatening if another band had already invaded the area. The largest of the Ute Bands, the Tabeguache (People of Sun Mountain), claimed the area around Pikes Peak (Tava, or Sun Mountain). Their band has been documented at between 3000 (in 1806) and 1500 (in 1860).7 On the other hand, the inventory of peeled bark trees at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is less than 100. The forest of Ponderosa pines in the immediate area of these peeled-bark trees is largely orange-bark (very old). In other words, the majority of trees surrounding the peeled-bark trees dates from approximately the same time, but are unscarred. There don’t appear to be any stumps from cut trees. Therefore, I feel that it is safe to presume that only those trees that are scarred were used, and that there are no missing scarred trees. Fifty, or even 150, peeled-bark trees are hardly enough to feed 1500 to 3000 people. This also presumes that all of these trees were utilized for food at the same time interval, and fails to address the food needs of such a large band over hundreds of years.
Second, I will address the ethnographic documentation itself. There is a great reluctance among the Ute to reveal any of the deeper spiritual teachings. I have been fortunate to work with Consultant A for over five years as an assistant for his spiritual work. None of the ethnographic sources cited for peeled-bark trees had such entrée to Ute spirituality. In fact, Anne Smith writes “most shamans were unwilling to disclose the source of their power…”8
Certainly Lt. Ruffner made no attempt to discern any spiritual reason of the peeled-bark trees he encountered. His mission was a blatant attempt by our government to assess the mineral and agricultural potential of the Ute lands.
Powell’s ethnographic notes only skim the surface of Ute spirituality, documenting a few charming legends and myths. In his 29 page chapter on Ute religion he notes that “…every tribe of savage men on the four quarters of the globe has had a religion of its own and all the tribes and peoples that have been swept away by the waves of time have had their religions and so far as we have records of these religions one problem is common to them all. This is it. Why is it that the sun moves through the firmament in an appointed way? …” 9 And this constitutes the main thrust of Powell’s investigation and understanding of Ute spirituality. It seems highly improbable that Powell’s Ute informants would divulge their deepest spiritual secrets to an outsider who considered them “savages” and gravely misunderstood them to be “worshipping beasts.”
It may be that Powell’s informants only told him part of the story; that the bark of these trees was consumed, without the details of their use in any ceremony. Powell’s information is lacking in many respects. His notes indicate that two cuts were made on the tree. The population of Medicine Trees, however, reveals that only one cut was usually made. Powell also states that this incision was made “a little higher than the collectors head…” The population of Medicine Trees, however, reveals that the height of these incisions varies greatly. There is no norm. This corroborates the testimony of Consultant A who stated that the cut on the tree was made to correspond with the illness in the patient’s body.
In conclusion, then, the divergent views of peeled trees as a food source or as a source of healing power may actually be mutually inclusive. According to Consultant A, the healing ceremony from trees includes the ingestion of the inner bark.
In the spring of 1997, I received notice from a resident concerned about the cutting of Indian trees along Cedar Mountain Road in Teller County.10 Later, when I met with Irv Johnson, he informed me that he had previously owned and operated a tree nursery, and therefore recognized the bent trees along the roadside as very old, and probably marked by the Indians. At his tree farm they referred to such trees as “nurse trees” which were bent parallel to the ground in order to graft young trees along the trunk. The next year, when Consultant A visited, I took him to see the bent tree at milepost 5.7 on Cedar Mountain Road. I had thought the trees to be trail markers, but I was corrected. “These are Prayer Trees used for ceremony. On the way from Crystal Peak to Pikes Peak, the people had to stop and pray four times. A young sapling was selected at this point and bent parallel to the ground where it was tied with a yucca rope. Then everyone circled the tree and prayed, for they knew the tree would live and hold their prayers for 800 years and each breeze would give their prayers new breath.”11 Consultant A considered this to be such a sacred tree that he declined to have his photo taken anywhere near the tree.
In May of 1999, I dreamed of a Ute woman, dressed in a long-fringed, white buckskin dress, waiting for me at the base of a special tree.12 The next day, I visited the place seen in my dream and discovered a beautiful Prayer Tree that also bore a medicine cut. Then, on October 18, 1999, I met with Al Kane and several representatives of the United States Forest Service on behalf of the Pikes Peak Historical Society. I took this group to this same tree in order to educate them concerning Prayer Trees, hoping that the USFS would allow us time to identify and save all culturally scarred trees in the Sledgehammer project area near Lake George. I also requested and received a letter from a Ute elder, Consultant B, describing Prayer Trees and requesting our help in protecting them.
“The trees tell who we are as Ute people. As a child I had heard of the trees that were used in ceremonies to bless our people but not actually seen them. The shape of the trees has significance and the rope used to tie them down is believed to be yucca and when it is tied it leaves a ring of scaring in the tree trunk and is visible and evident that a human being made the tie. Next summer I had planned to bring a group of our youth to witness the trees and make their offering. Your area is our ancestral homeland.

Celinda, please on our behalf of our children make the plea to save the trees. I ask the creator to watch over us all and help those in authority to understand the need to preserve those things that are sacred to us.13
Cousultant B also included poignant letters from her 5th Grade class, begging us to save the “Prayer Trees.” After this day-long meeting with Kane and the other USFS representatives (including their tree expert and several archaeologists) we were given permission to survey, flag and protect all Ute culturally scarred trees in the Sledgehammer area. Beginning on Saturday, October 30th, over twenty volunteers from the Pikes Peak Historical Society canvassed the Sledgehammer area over the course of several weeks in order to identify and preserve these Ute culturally scarred trees.
Additionally, at the Prayer Tree shown to me in my dream, there is a second, highly unusual, culturally scarred tree. When the Utes do ceremony at the “Holy Woman Tree” they also acknowledge this braided, or Prophecy Tree. This tree consists of three discreet trees, either planted from seeds or transplanted in close proximity, then braided into one twined trunk. When I directed the attention of an official of the USFS to this tree, he said that it was the most extraordinary tree he had seen, and that the braiding of the trunks had to be done by hand on a daily basis.
Although literature exists on the practice of bending trees within other American Indian groups, I have found no historic reference to these trees for the Ute Indians.

A third type of culturally scarred tree common to the Ute people is the Burial Tree. The entire population of Burial Trees that has been identified at this time is cedar (or juniper) trees. In his book, Sacred Plant Medicine, Stephen Buhner writes about the spiritual attributes of cedar.
The ethnobotanists who have studied indigenous uses of plants have often noted that native cultures seem to use plants as medicines with astonishing similarity the world over. But what is really interesting is that cultures all over the world have come to identify certain spiritual qualities in the same plants. For instance, in every culture where cedar is known, it is recognized as having benevolent spiritual qualities and the ability to counteract negative forces.1
According to Consultant A, Medicine People carried the seeds of the cedar, and when another Medicine person or a chief died, these seeds were planted nearby.15 These burial trees can be found at almost every Ute fortification that has been mapped so far. They are also present at a unique site near Florissant, near the top of a two-story, house- sized boulder, where special “catch pools” have been etched from the solid granite. These catch pools are then drained by two hand-routed canals over a dozen feet, directly to the burial trees planted there. The intense labor required to etch the catch pool and canals is testimony to the importance of these Burial Trees.

In Plains Indian culture, cedar is thought to hold special spiritual powers.“… In creation myths the cedar is associated with the advent of the human race; other myths connect this tree with the thunder. The Thunder Birds were said to live “in a forest of cedars…” 16

Cedar, or Pawa-pu in the Ute language. Dr. James Goss explains.
So pinon pine is “waap” and cedar or juniper tree is “pa-waap.” That first element is “pa,” water. Cedar or junipers generally grow where there is a little more water than pinons. But in their traditions they sort of grow together there. I’ve been told that in their traditional view of things “waap” and “pa-waap” are sisters.17
The ancient Ute trail to the top of Crystal Peak, located in Teller County, is lined or marked with cedar trees. It is not known if this is simply an anomaly, or if the cedar tree is also used to mark sacred spots, or if the rocky precipices of Crystal Peak hold Ute burials.


The fourth and final category of Ute culturally scarred trees is the arborglyph, or Message Tree. Glyphs, or Ute signs, were carved into the bark of the aspen tree. At the Frontier Historical Museum at Glenwood Springs, several sections of aspen tree bearing these glyphs have been preserved. The undated newspaper story provided with these aspen segments tells the Utes’ story.

The Indians had a picture for it instead of a word. Shown here is a section of a tree upon which the story of a tribal fight and the burning of a hunting found is told. The tree was located on the George Davidson ranch 20 miles from Walden. The tree was cut down to protect the valuable writing from damage and the three-foot section is now in the possession of Mrs. John Hudson, 2008 Van Lennen. The carvings were done about 1863.

In a letter from the Frontier Historical Society, Director Cindy Cochran sheds further light on the origin of these Message Trees.

It appears that the museum acquired the message trees (or story trees) prior to 1990 from a local rancher who is now deceased. The story of the trees is as follows: A man named Joe Nesler found the trees in tact near Walden, Colorado. To save them from being clawed by animals, he cut the trees, varnished them and put them in an old mine shaft for twenty years to cure them. According to an unidentified newspaper clipping [quoted above], the trees were later in the possession of a Mrs. John Hudson and at some time passed to our rancher, Mr. Hopkins. In our photo archives, we have pictures of the trees before they were cut.18

There are reportedly a number of Message Trees in the area near Steamboat Springs. These trees, however, have not been confirmed nor documented by the author.


My friends among the Ute Nation tell me that all trees are sacred to their people, as they feel that they are ancestors. When setting up a tipi, one must never step on or over the tipi poles, for this would insult the Tree People. This understanding of the trees as ancestors might best be explained by the following Ute legend.

“Long time ago, when the earth was young, all things in this world could speak. Animals could speak, the water could speak, the skies the stars, the four-leggeds and those with wings, even the little bugs. “We shall make this world the way that it will be comfortable for those that are going to live here, the Indian people. He will then take care of it in the right way because the instructions will come from us.” Those are the words of wisdom from the animals and all things around him. Thus are the stories that I’m going to tell.
The coyote will be the main character and his older brother the wolf. Many, many moons ago, to the south, a journey was to be made throughtout the world into the high countries of this world. The Older Brother [Sunif, the wolf] wanted to put the people here and there, so he made a little bag and this he will pack on his back and as he moves to the north he will distribute these little people throughout the world. All will be placed in the right place. He did not tell anyone about what he was doing. But his brother, Yahowitz (the coyote) was a curious animal. In Indian stories he was a trickster. He was curious. And he murmured “Ahat iya aqay? What is he doing?” The Older Brother was breaking these small twigs, to small size and putting them in a bag. But the Younger brother watched without getting too close. Now the older brother Sunif decided to take a walk and when he was gone the curiosity got the best of his younger brother Yohowitz. Because in the bag he could hear people talking. There’s music going on in the bag. He’d listen real carefully and he would say “Niahook? What’s it saying, what is in there.” So he took his flint knife and he cut a little hole on the side of the bag. In the meantime, his older brother is gone, but he knew that he’s getting close again. And when he looked in through the hole the people saw him. There were people in there. The sticks had turned into people. And some jumped out, and about that time the older brother he’s come back again. Not knowing what had took place he put the bag on his back. And he moved on his journey. As he was going along he’d be singing a song. [Drum beats] Like heart beat of the earth the drums would be going and he’d be singing to that. Every once in while he would stop and reach in the bag and put some people down on the earth and say “You will live here” but as he went on he noticed that the bag was getting lighter and he knew that he didn’t put that many people out. Finally when he got to the high place waaaay up in the mountains, then he knew what was going on. There was a hole in the bag and all the people had jumped out. But they are still in there that he left in there and he talked to them “You my people, you my children, I’m going to put you over here. You will be called the Yutica, Yuta, the Ute. You will live in these mountains for these shining mountains will be your home. From here, you will see across the plains to the east and to the north and to the west and to the south.” And that’s how the distribution was made and how the Utes were placed on the mountains. Then all the people that were supposed to have been placed around they dropped off and those are the little tribes here and there scattered to the south to the west and that’s where we came from. 19


1. Ruffner, Lt. E.H. “Reconnaissance in the Ute Country”; House of Representatives, Ex. Doc. No. 193, March 17, 1874; p. 33.
2. Smith, Anne M. Ethnography of the Northern Utes; Museum of New Mexico Press, 1974; p. 65.
3. Powell, John Wesley, “The Life and Culture of the Ute,” Bureau of American Ethnology, Ms. No. 830 (Ute) pp 24, 25.
4. Interview, Consultant A, May 5-7, 1998. Author’s notes.
5. Smith, Anne. M. op.cit. p.153-154.
6. Interview, Consultant A, May 5-7, 1998. Author’s notes.
7. Jackson, Donald, Editor, Journals of Zebulon Montgomery Pike; University of Oklahoma Press, 1966. On page 358, dated 16th of December, Pike approaches 11-Mile Reservoir (territory of the Tabequache Band), and notes that it “had been occupied by at least 3000 Indians…” Marshall Sprague gives the census of the Tabeguache Band in 1860 at 1500. Sprague, Marshall, Massacre; University of Nebraska Press, 1957. p. 77-78.
8. Smith, Anne. M. op.cit. p. 157.
9. Powell, John Wesly, op.cit. Chap. “Religon of the Utes” p. 8.
10. Copy of letter from Irving and Joyce Johnson dated May 19, 1997 to Senator Campbell.
11. Interview, Consultant A., May 5-7, 1998. Author’s notes. Also, The Ute Bulletin, Vol. 33 No 22, August 25, 1999, p. 3.
12. CRK Dream Journal, May 28, 1999. Author’s collection.
13. Letter, Consultant B to Celinda R. Kaelin, October 15, 1999. Author’s collection.
14. Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Sacred Plant Medicine, Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1996; p. 29.
15. Interview, Consultant A, May 5-7, 1998. Author’s notes.
16. Gilmore, Melvin R. Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, University of Nebraska Press, 1977. p. 12.
17. Wroth, William, Ed. Ute Indian Arts & Culture, Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 2000. p. 38.
18. Letter, Frontier Historical Society to Celinda Kaelin, September 18, 2001. Author’s collection.
19. Interview, Consultant A, May 7, 1998. Author’s notes.