Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River : A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults
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The Ute and the Unitarians

By Ted Fetter.

Although the relationship between the Ute tribe and the American Unitarian Association, a principal forerunner to the UUA, is not well known, the two share a significant story together. The Unitarians became, in effect, agents of the United States Government in its policy toward Native Americans.

Through congressional, presidential, and Supreme Court actions and decisions, the United States had claimed "discovery" rights to the land upon which US American settlers were living, even as those settlers invaded and took more and more Indigenous lands. The United States launched continuous attacks on the sovereignty of Indigenous Nations. The US government treated Indigenous nations as "domestic dependent nations" to be managed on reservations, rather than self-governing people. 

In the 1870s, President Ulysses S. Grant set out a new policy toward Native Americans. Dubbed the "peace policy," it involved religious organizations in the operation of the 69 Indian agencies that were located throughout the country on reservations. The policy cited at least three reasons for involving religious professionals: there would be less corruption, a greater chance for resources from the denominations, and increased likelihood of converting the Indians to Christianity, a major step toward assimilation.

As part of that program, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) accepted responsibility for two Ute agencies in Colorado. Between 1871 and 1878, the Unitarians nominated five different men, including four ministers, to serve as Indian agents for the two agencies. The responsibilities of Indian agents were to carry out government policy, distribute the supplies as guaranteed by treaty (but seldom delivered in full or on time), hear Indian grievances against whites (but without any power over white settlers), and investigate and deal with white complaints against the Indians. Indian agents were also to insist that the Natives learn English and learn how to farm.

The Ute lived in what they called the "Shining Mountains," most of what is now Colorado. They prospered as hunter-gatherers, using summer and winter camps to follow buffalo and other game. Houses that could not be moved seemed impractical, and there was no need or desire to cultivate crops. In Robert Emmitt's book The Last War Trail: The Utes and the Settlement of Colorado, Saponise Cuch is quoted: "It was a life with little hunger and want, where play and humor were taught to smother pain, sickness and death; a life where the good play of the hunt brought food, and the pleasure of the dance brought a man a wife, a woman a husband; a life where a man owned little and belonged to everything."

When whites came to Colorado, the Ute emphasized diplomacy to avoid war. They agreed to limit their lands in the Treaty of 1868. When gold discoveries fed settlers' appetite for Ute territory, they were forced to give up more land. Nevertheless, the Ute sought to live on the land they still had and in accord with the dictates of the treaties.

The Unitarians who came as Indian agents were hard working, honest, and dedicated, but were there to carry out US government policy. When the supplies guaranteed by the treaties were not provided as promised the agents entreated Washington to meet its treaty obligations. When white settlers came onto the reservation in violation of the treaties, they objected to this encroachment, but were unable to force the whites to leave or to get local law enforcement to remove them. When the government insisted that the Utes farm their lands, the agents pointed out that much of the reservation was arid, experienced frost twelve months a year, and was infested with grasshoppers.

Rev. Edward H. Danforth, Indian Agent at White River, Colorado, wrote this in his annual report dated August 31, 1877: "Fourteen different families have commenced in a small way at farming. Unfortunately for them and the esteem in which the work will be held in future the grasshoppers, the extraordinary drought, and July frost have cut their crops off entirely. About twelve acres were prepared and planted by Indians — potatoes, corn, garden vegetables, and oats were planted and sown, but they will get nothing for their labor."

While well-intentioned, the Unitarian Indian agents were not very effective. They were politically naive in their relations with the Indian Affairs Office in the Department of the Interior and with local political leaders. They were not able to secure added funding from the AUA for schools; generally the agents' wives were the teachers for Ute children. And they were not good managers of the resources and staff the government supplied.

In addition, some of the Unitarian agents had personalities that stood out as odd on the Colorado frontier. The best example is Rev. J. Nelson Trask. Trask arrived at the Los Pinos Agency in 1871, and from the start he seemed strange. One historian writes: "Trask walked about the agency in a dark blue swallow-tail coat, skin-tight trousers, and, to protect himself from the sun, an old-fashioned floppy beaver hat with a broad brim, and a set of green eye goggles." Trask was one of several agents who had a strong moral sense that the Indians were not being treated fairly but who could not establish a satisfactory relationship with the Ute, to say nothing of a working relationship with local officials in Colorado.

Most importantly, the Unitarian Indian agents were part of the United States government policy towards Native Americans, a program that forced the Indians to choose between annihilation and assimilation. These agents implicitly adopted a stance that supported assimilation of the Utes into the dominant culture, trying hard to teach English, encouraging adoption of settled agriculture in an unforgiving climate, and succumbing to white intrusion on Ute land. While sympathetic to the Ute, they could see no alternative.

The interaction between the Ute and the Unitarians ended in 1878 and 1879. Rev. Danforth had wanted to end his service at White River. In 1878, without consulting the AUA, the United States government appointed Nathan C. Meeker as its Indian agent. Although Meeker was not a Unitarian, he continued to correspond with the AUA and to seek its guidance and assistance. Meeker was much stronger than his predecessors in his insistence on agriculture and his forcefulness in dealing with Ute leaders. His intransigence led to conflict and strife with many Ute. The difficulties climaxed with his murder. "The Ute killed Meeker for his inability to understand the Indian people he was supposed to represent. They drove a barrel stave through his throat so in the afterlife he could not tell lies." As a result of the so-called Meeker Massacre, the Ute were forcibly removed from their precious Colorado homeland in 1880 and relocated to parched, dry land in eastern Utah. The program in which the Unitarians played a part had reached its conclusion.

Today, there are seven Ute bands and three tribes, but they continue to be one Ute people.

Find out more about the Ute people by visiting these websites:

  • The Northern Ute Tribe is located on the Uintah and Ouray reservation in Northeastern Utah approximately 150 miles east of Salt Lake City on US Highway 40. The reservation is located within a three-county area known as the “Uintah Basin”. It is the second largest Indian Reservation in the United States that covers over 4.5 million acres.
  • The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe reservation lies in Southwest Colorado, Southeast Utah, and Northern New Mexico. There are two communities on the Ute Reservation; the tribal headquarters in Towaoc, Colorado and the small community at White Mesa, Utah. 
  • The Southern Ute Tribe reservation land is located Southwest Colorado between Durango and Pagosa Springs.

Find out more about the history by watching The Original Coloradans, Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting Network (28 min).