History Ute Prayer Trees

Ute Prayer Trees

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The “clean air” atmosphere in Colorado tends to pull people outdoors no matter if they are visitor or resident. The very common scenic vistas provide memories that last a lifetime. In fact, many of the people who move to Colorado will tell you that a major factor in their decision is the ability to hike, climb mountains, bicycle over trails, and do other activities in the plentiful “unspoiled” areas of this state. Long walks are a favorite pastime for many, young or old. If you have ever taken a walk in the Tri-Lakes region, it’s likely that you have seen many Ponderosa pine trees that appear gnarled and bent. Some of those trees occurred naturally being affected by the ever-present mistletoe and tree fungi … but some were “shaped”.

Caveat: This article is intended to provide a small taste of the information that is available about Ute prayer trees. Others (notably Rod Smith; see the link at the end) have provided a much more in-depth explanation and insight into the history of the Ute Indians. I would encourage you to search for more information on the internet if you are so inclined. In particular, there are videos available on YouTube which you might find interesting. Obviously, the Ute tribes have long since stopped traveling through the Tri-Lakes region so the trees they modified must be relatively old. An older Ponderosa Pine tree usually exhibits an orange colored bark and will have a larger diameter at its base. Prayer trees will have signs of ligature especially near the sharp bends, removed bark, burned areas, and unusual appearances.

In the years before European descendants came to Colorado, Ute Indians made seasonal trips through this area. In the winter, the lower elevation plains were home for the Ute tribes where storms were less severe and the occasional warm day came more frequently. In the summer, the tribe would climb through Ute Pass (or other trails) to reach the lands higher on the mountains. Sometimes their path crossed through what is now known as the Tri-Lakes region. The leaders of the tribes knew the path well, but forests were thick and it was not always possible to see the mountains, so the tribe used trail markers to help them follow the right path.  In addition, events were sometimes celebrated with ceremonies and the tribes developed the habit of using available resources in those ceremonies. There were plenty of pine trees and many were young and flexible; easily modified using knives, leather strips, etc. to form shapes meaningful to the tribe.

There are many different reasons why a tree might be modified but almost all can be grouped into five categories:  Trail markers, burial trees, medicine trees, ceremonial trees, and prophecy trees. The picture at the beginning of this article is a burial tree. Note the sharp curve just above the ground and the flat section of the main trunk which then turns upward toward the sky.  The roots represent birth and symbolize that each person is “born of the earth”. The flat section represents the time that we walk on the earth. It is believed that the length of the flat section is an indication of the length of life for the person memorialized by each tree.  The upturned body of the tree symbolizes the human spirit as it joins the Creator in the sky.

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A trail marker tree (see the example above) is characterized by a section where the bark has been completely removed killing that section of the tree and a limb pointing upward which then becomes the main trunk of the tree. You can think of the dead section as a “finger” pointing toward something of importance; perhaps the trail but possibly a source of fresh water or other important place.

Medicine trees can be relatively unique in their shape because their intended purpose was usually unique as well. They can be characterized by twists in the trunk, multiple shapes of the smaller limbs, partial scraping of sections of bark, burned areas, and traces of marks made by leather binding.

Ceremonial trees also have unique shapes which had meaning to the tribe at the time of the ceremony. Several ceremonial trees have been found which remind us of the “goal posts” on our familiar football fields. Two limbs are shaped to form a “U” and perhaps there is (or was) something important framed by the limbs. Sometimes two separate trees are pulled together to form a “portal” shape (see image below). The bark is usually removed between them and the trunks tied such that they grow together permanently. There may have been a symbolic ceremony where young members of the tribe “passed through the portal” to enter their adult life.

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The pictures in this article (except the “portal” trees) were taken while walking through Fox Run Regional Park just off of Roller Coaster Road. There is a prophecy tree in the park which resembles one larger person, perhaps an adult, and a smaller person, perhaps a child, in an embrace. You can visit and hike the trail yourself to see these prayer trees. However, I would like to leave you with another thought. There are many prayer trees in this area which have yet to be discovered. You may be a new resident of the Tri-Lakes region. In fact, you may have purchased raw land and are planning to build your dream house.  I wish you well and hope that your dreams come true … but I would ask that you look around your intended building site first. There may be an old, bent tree that has been forgotten by those who shaped it many years ago. Please consider saving that tree if you find one. We have already lost so much of our history and it is irreplaceable.

Want to learn more?

Youtube video about Ute pray trees at Fox Run regional park.

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