Telling the Story “We’re Still Here”
Story written by Renee Morgan | Photos by Nancy S Young
Welcome to Ignacio, home to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Southern Ute Museum and Cultural Center in beautiful Southwest Colorado. The town of Ignacio, named for Chief Ignacio of the Weeminuche band of the Ute Tribe, is in the heart of the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, an area ideally situated for work-play adventures. Nested in the southeast corner of La Plata County, Ignacio is a quick drive from a plethora of outdoor recreational opportunities, including Lake Capote, a fresh-water spring lake, located on the reservation near Chimney Rock National Monument. Other outdoor pursuits include the San Juan Mountains and National Forest, thousands of acres of State/Federal lands, Mesa Verde National Park and the Four Corners Region, the quadripoint where four states meet.
“The Southern Ute Museum is impressive, inside and out. I always find interesting details in the architecture and design that reflect the cultural values of the Southern Ute people.” – Jeremy Wade Shockley
The Museum was established in 1971 to preserve and promote Ute culture. In 2011, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe proudly opened a new and modern museum facility. The 54,000 square foot facility is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Ute culture through cultural, historic and current event exhibits that provide a unique museum experience for indigenous and non-indigenous visitors alike. The history of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe is told from a tribal perspective, with contributions from tribal membership, and provides a unique resource for tribal members, researchers, community members and visitors. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is one of two federally recognized tribes located in the State of Colorado, the other being the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe just south of Cortez, Colorado. One other tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe is located in south central Utah. Once, Ute territory comprised all of Colorado and touched into the surrounding states.
The Museum was designed by Jones and Jones, the architectural firm responsible for consultation of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.
“The Southern Ute Museum is really quite a beautiful place. Inside and out, the space is fluid, with angles and curves and lighting that invite intimacy with each exquisitely displayed exhibit. Visitors are enveloped in a sense of a people, instead of merely viewing historical exhibits at arm’s length. We are truly fortunate to have this resource in our community.” – A Southern Ute Indian Tribe employee and photographer noted.
The research that went into the Museum’s development was considerable and included not only frequent consultation with Tribal youth and elders, but extensive research about the land and resources. This allowed tribal members to elaborate on their strong connection to the land.
With a goal of introducing visitors to Ute beliefs and activities, the architects wove central beliefs into the design of the building. Outside, the building footprint itself mimics the Circle of Life theme while the arms of the façade, resembling eagle’s wings, embrace a courtyard of native plants which are specific to the Ute people. The conic form represents a tipi, architectural ribbing suggests basketry and the east-facing entrance encompasses trees and a shaded corral that is reminiscent of the Bear Dance. Maintaining the strong connection to local resources, the wood used in the Museum’s construction is Ponderosa pine from the Telluride area, the inner bark of which the Ute people used for sustenance as well as healing compresses and tea.
Inside and out, language is emphasized, with the Ute words for each cardinal direction etched in stones on the Museum grounds. Ute words for seasons and other common words are displayed inside.
All gallery exhibits are self-guided, allowing visitors to meander through the museum at their leisure.
Upon entering the museum, guests are treated immediately to exhibits appropriate to the season. Exhibits in the 1,860 square foot Welcome Area space are refreshed every six to twelve months. Through September 2018, visitors may view the Southern Ute Bear Dance exhibit, a dance unique to the Ute tribes.
The Permanent Gallery chronicles the story of the Ute people, from prehistory to modern times. This gallery is presented through photographic panels, audio-visual presentations and interactive electronics. Additionally, life-size replicas include a buffalo hide tipi, a cabin and a school room. Here, visitors will notice six themes among the permanent gallery; welcome, long time ago, camp scene, reservation life, celebrating traditions and current events. The key message from the Ute people is their past and current presence on the Colorado plateau: “We’re still here.”
The Permanent Gallery caters to visitors of varied ages, interests and learning styles, allowing museum guests to see, hear and touch the displays. The Permanent Gallery is rooted in layered information – some displays involve participation, while others prompt storytelling. Visitors are able to watch videos of tribal members sharing personal reflections. Visitors will notice that storytelling is common throughout the gallery.
Additional prominent exhibit topics include linguistics, archaeology, land, food, plants, horses, treaties, crafts and education. Rounding out the Permanent Gallery exhibits are modern lifestyles, such as the KSUT public radio and celebrating Bear Dance traditions.
This gallery space is host to 60 black and white framed photographs taken by Linda MacCannell during the height of 1990s Indian rodeo. Riders of the West: Portraits from Indian Rodeo is on display through February 2019, courtesy of the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College. Mrs. MacCannell has lent her time to visit the museum on a number of occasions, giving visitors an impromptu verbal presentation of her photographs, which may be all the more reason to visit the Southern Ute Museum.
Experience the Southern Ute Museum
This extraordinary museum experience and its gift shop are available to view daily from 10AM to 5PM. Admission is free.