Centuries-old tree, revered by Ute tribe, dramatically cut back

The Ute Council Tree is shown moments before crews cut off the top of the stately cottonwood that arborists said was dying and was becoming a safety hazard.

A 10-foot remnant of the trunk is all that’s left of the tree that was at least 216 years old. The tree and its locale are of special historical and cultural significance to the members of the three Ute Indian bands represented at Friday’s ceremony.

The Delta County Historical Society oversaw the cutting down of the historic Ute Council Tree on Friday.

The tree was disassembled in front of a varied audience of local townspeople and Ute Indian tribal members, the latter of whom were both mournful for the destruction of the culturally important tree and upset about the way the decision-making process to remove the tree was done.

Several Ute tribespeople gave impassioned speeches at a dedication ceremony, organized by the historical society, on Friday morning just before workers moved in with cherry-pickers and chain saws.

“You all don’t really know what this fellow here means to our people,” said Terry Knight, a spiritual leader for the Ute Mountain tribe, referring to the tree. “This is part of our heritage.”

Knight said that he felt the Delta County Historical Society had not included the Utes properly in the process leading up to the removal of the tree. He also said he didn’t know what was planned for the wood once the tree had been cut down, but that he hoped he could discuss it with the historical society after the event.

Knight connected the poor communication between the Utes and the historical society to a cultural dichotomy.

To non-Indians, he said, the tree is “just a tree.”

“To us, it’s a grandfather who understands our needs, our wants,” Knight said.

The tree and its locale are of special historical and cultural significance to the members of the three Ute Indian bands represented at the ceremony — Northern, Southern and Ute Mountain —who for millennia inhabited the lands where the tree flourished.

A knotted and noble-looking plains cottonwood, it had grown on a spot near the Gunnison River in what is now the town of Delta for at least 216 years and perhaps for 260 years, according to tree ring samples previously taken from the tree.

It was possibly a sapling when the Declaration of Independence was signed and would have already stood tall through the Civil War.

Throughout the life of the tree, generations of Utes had come to sit beneath it to discuss plans and to make agreements, said tribal spokespeople on Friday.

After the Ute Indians were forcibly moved to reservations from their territories in western Colorado during an 1881 federal campaign, when the tree was perhaps 124 years old, the U.S. government took control of their lands.

But Ute Chief Ouray’s wife Chipeta was known to still visit with the tree when she passed its way on trips from Utah’s Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation in the early 1900s, after the death of her husband.

In more recent years, the tree has been central to the Ute Council Tree Pow Wow and Cultural Festivals that took place for 16 consecutive years in Delta’s Confluence Park in the 1990s and 2000s, drawing in Utes from all three prevalent Colorado bands of the tribe.

“This tree is sacred to us,” said Kenny Frost during the dedication ceremony. All cottonwoods are sacred to the Utes, he said, and cottonwood leaves are used in the Ute Sun Dance.

Yet, many Utes in attendance on Friday hadn’t heard that the Council Tree was to be cut down until the day before, Frost said.

“No one really sat down to talk with the tribe and say, ‘What can we do? How can we do it?’” Frost said.

The historical society has had control of the tree and the patch of land on which it grew since 1982, said Jim Wetzel, director of the Delta County Historical Society museum.

The tree is technically on the property of the house that sits just adjacent to the tree, Wetzel said, but the owners of the property deeded the tree to the historical society.

Since 1990, there have been six major “drops” of branches — mostly wind-caused — from the tree that have threatened the safety of nearby homes and their residents in the neighborhood now surrounding the tree, Wetzel said.

The most recent major limb-fall occurred on Aug. 1, and shortly after, under the advisement of arborists, the historical society —which does not have any Ute members — decided the tree was a safety hazard.

“Since the historical society owns the tree it was our responsibility,” Wetzel said. “Right now we need to get public safety taken care of.”

Keith Lucy, chairman of the historical society and emcee of the dedication, said afterward that the society did try to reach out to the Utes before cutting down the tree.

“We felt that we communicated appropriately,” Lucy said. “I agree, it was short notice,” he said, referencing the nine days that passed between when the decision to remove the tree was made and when the removal was scheduled.

Upon hearing that Lucy and the historical society thought they did reach out to the Utes, Frost said, “They probably did reach out, but to the wrong people.”

Frost, a Southern Ute who works as a consultant on Ute history, sacred sites and Indian treaties, among other specialties, said he heard of the plans to cut down the Council Tree two days beforehand on Facebook.

He said he was fortunate to be able to arrive in Delta with time to perform a blessing at the tree on Thursday afternoon.

More blessings of the tree were done on Friday morning at the beginning of the dedication ceremony.

A priest opened the ceremony with a prayer, and then Alden Naranjo, a historian for the Southern Utes, performed a blessing with the help of a few of his tribespeople, asking the audience of about 100 people gathered at the tree to turn off their video cameras and stop taking pictures.

Naranjo faced the Council Tree and spoke to it in the Southern Ute language, a bundle of sage burning in his hand. He then encircled the tree, using a feather to wave the smoke at the tree and at the audience in a cleansing practice before singing to the tree with two of his companions.

One or two others who spoke at the dedication also faced the tree to speak, addressing it as “grandfather” and thanking it for its presence in the history of their people. A couple speakers shed tears.

Delta Mayor Ed Sisson also spoke near the end of the ceremony, saying that he was in grade school when he first visited the tree,  adding that “it’s quite an honor to be part of this ceremony.”

Behind the speakers, the tree, large enough at its base to require four adults with spread arms to encircle it and still green at its crown, stood quietly in the still air, hummingbirds and doves moving through its canopy.

Once the dedication ended, shortly before noon, large trucks with cherry-pickers and cranes that had been waiting in the wings moved immediately onto the scene and began the work of taking down the tree, limb by limb.

The remaining onlookers moved under shade tents a safe distance away to watch.

The historical society had planned for the tree to be cut down until it stood around 10 feet tall, leaving the trunk base as a memorial. They then hoped to deed the tree back to the property owners who had deeded it to them in the 1980s.

Some Utes present expressed the desire to have a carving of eagles placed atop the trunk, but it’s too soon to tell whether those hopes will come to fruition.


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