Before there was Denver
Nearly 50 Native American tribes once called Front Range home

Before there was Denver

Ernest House, Jr., a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, in downtown Denver./ John Daley/CPR?News

John Daley/CPR News - 04/06/2023

by John Daley/Colorado Public Radio


Colorado’s history can often be headline news. That includes things like the proposed renaming of Mt. Evans or the removal of a statue of a Civil War soldier. It prompted a listener to ask CPR News’ Colorado Wonders a question: What Native American tribes lived in the area now known as Denver?

It came to CPR from Darlene Graham, a retired Denver Public Schools teacher. She remembers learning about the Ute tribe but not much more.

“I think it’s in fifth grade where they study Native Americans in this area. It’s just a fascinating subject,” she said. “I think it’s sometimes kind of forgotten.” 

Standing in downtown Denver, Ernest House, Jr. would agree. 

“We’re sitting here on the banks of the confluence in downtown Denver, and as I’m looking around, I saw people that were fishing, that were meditating, that were just walking their dogs,” House, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe from Southwest Colorado and a former executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, said. 

“I go back in time and think about how our tribal nations had also utilized this area. Water’s so important,” he said. 

Water was the lifeblood, helping sustain people in this region for 12,000 years or more.

The Utes and other tribes lived on the mountain side of the South Platte. And, House said, on the other side lived “the Plains tribes, those tribes that were moving with buffalo. They were large horse tribes like the Comanche, the Sioux Nations, Cheyenne, Arapahoe and so on.” 

They traveled and traded around this region and beyond. 

“There was an I-25 corridor long before any type of concrete was laid down that these tribes used,” House said. “Our tribal nations have always also been here, but often are overlooked, or the story’s never told.”

At least 48 other nations occupied this land in the past 500 years. Then, waves of Euro-American explorers, trappers, traders and eventually settlers pushed in, often violently. 

Tribes, House said, were “forcibly removed by treaty or by gunpoint from what we call the state of Colorado over the last 150 to 200 years.”

Complicated, violent history

History Colorado, the museum in downtown Denver, has been grappling with this complicated, bloody story. Last fall, it opened a new exhibit on the Sand Creek Massacre, the deadliest day in Colorado history, which was developed in consultation with tribes.

“You can’t understand the creation of Colorado without understanding both the Sand Creek Massacre and the Gold Rush,” Sam Bock, publications director and lead exhibit developer for History Colorado, said. “They’re all connected.” 

Increasing settlement on the land took off with the Gold Rush. Disease took the lives of many in tribal communities. Then in the 1860s, the U.S. used Colorado gold to help pay for the Civil War. 

 “The people coming to mine that gold were hostile to the Indigenous peoples who had been living here for hundreds of years,” said Bock.

To protect Denver and the mines, the U.S. sent troops. In 1864, the U.S. Army attacked a camp of mostly women, children and elders on Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado, as the exhibit documents. The soldiers murdered more than 230 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapahoe people.

“It’s really one of the most important moments in Colorado history,” said Bock. 

That moment came after a string of treaties were broken by the government, with John Evans, the second governor of the Colorado Territory from 1862-65, playing a central role.

“We were here defending our land,” Richard Williams, executive director of a nonprofit called People of the Sacred Land, who is Oglala Lakota and Cheyenne, said. “There was not a single person who was in Colorado at that time that was here legally.”

Sand Creek also set the stage for more death and devastation.

“These people were pushed very far away from their homeland,” Bock said. “They were pushed into residential boarding schools where their children, against their will, were taken and, oftentimes, sadly had their language and culture literally beaten from them.”

The Sand Creek Massacre is a key moment in the history of the entire hemisphere, Williams said. 

“My ancestors were living in their homeland, and they were surviving in a very comfortable manner. And they were annihilated,” said Williams, an educator and former CEO of the American Indian College Fund. “Sand Creek, and from about 1861 to about 1869, is the worst case of genocide in the Americas.”

Reconciling the past

Momentum is building to revisit the past with an eye toward restoration and reconciliation. 

In February, hundreds gathered at the Denver Indian Center, an urban cultural gathering center for the American Indian and Alaska Native community, which makes up roughly 2% of Colorado’s population, according to the U.S. Census. They were there for the kickoff of an event aimed at sharing the history of Denver’s American Indian and Indigenous Peoples communities.

“I think that we need to be able to tell our own story,” said Williams, who gave an invocation. 

Community members, surrounded by the flags of Native American nations that decorate the walls of the center, joined in a traditional round dance along with Seven Falls Indian Dancers.

Denver’s Landmark Preservation Team and Office of Storytelling are developing a written study and a documentary. Community members are telling their stories. The state, too, is working to bolster the historic record, including about the dozens of tribes with ties to the land here.

“History Colorado and the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs held tribal consultations to make a list of these 48 tribes that have ties to what is now known as the state of Colorado,” state Deputy Press Secretary Melissa Dworkin said in an email. That includes the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Southern Ute Indian Tribe, which have jurisdictions in Colorado. 

An exhibit at History Colorado called “Written on the Land” documents the story of the Utes, Colorado’s longest continuous residents, told in their own voices.

Currently, there are more than 200 tribal nations represented in American Indian/Alaska Native communities in the Denver metro area, according to Dworkin.

Williams said history also requires a hard, often painful look at how Colorado was formed. 

“You only need to ask yourself one question: Why are there no Indian reservations on the Front Range or in the eastern plains of Colorado? And it’s a sad story.”

Williams hopes in better remembering, chronicling and understanding history, the people living in the land now known as Colorado can seek truth and chart a better future. 

For him, the effort is long overdue.

“One hundred and fifty years,” Williams said.

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