Most Viewed Stories
In search of the sacred trees the Utes left behind
BLACK FOREST • How many times, John Anderson wonders, have people strolled past this spot with no idea of its significance?
The massive ponderosa pine in Fox Run Regional Park is impossibly twisted, with “U”-shaped branches and scarring that mark it as a Ute cultural tree, relics of the tribe that called the Pikes Peak region home before white settlers arrived. Anderson, a former El Paso County sheriff, spends his retirement roaming the woods in search of them.
“I think there have been thousands and thousands of people who have walked right by it and not known what they were looking at,” Anderson said.
Call it a case of not being able to see the trees because of the forest.
“It’s because we don’t know what to look for,” Anderson said. “Now that you’ve seen it, you won’t be able to drive down Baptist Road without looking for more.”
There is growing awareness of the Ute trees, and historian Celinda Kaelin has identified more than 500 in the region.
“For me, these trees are really imbued with a special spiritual power and when people do a ceremony at these trees, it’s very powerful,” said Kaelin, who works with the Pikes Peak Historical Society Museum in Florissant. “Each of these trees is like a cathedral to the people. They are living artifacts and they’re fascinating from that regard.”
Kaelin has worked with the Northern Ute Indian tribe for more than 15 years to document the trees and teach others about their significance.
The twisted pines are prayer trees. Pikes Peak was sacred to the Utes, and on pilgrimages to the mountain, bands would tie a sapling to the ground, often bent to point toward the peak. A line in the bark usually can be seen, showing it was humans and not wind or snowfall that bent the trees.
“Then everyone circled the tree and prayed, for they knew the tree would live and hold their prayers for 800 years and each breeze would give their prayers new breath,” a Ute once told Kaelin.
The trees can be found in Teller County, Stratton Open Space and Black Forest, which was an important pathway for the Utes because they could track buffalo herd movements from the dominating ridge of the Palmer Divide.
There are also medicine trees, which display a cut — parallel with the ground — usually 6 to 12 inches long, from which food and medicine were extracted. Medicine trees can be found in Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.
Burial trees are cedars planted at the spot where a chieftain or medicine man died. Kaelin has identified some on the rocky hill of Crystal Peak north of Lake George.
The fourth kind are message trees, in which glyphs were carved into the trunks of aspens. The most reliable message tree findings have been in northwest Colorado.
Kaelin said most people assume the trees are sick, and many have been cut down. An untold number were lost in the Hayman and Waldo Canyon fires, and others have been claimed by development.
She is working to map them and hopes to someday place metal markers to preserve the trees. City and county parks officials have not mapped or inventoried the Ute trees.
Anderson has begun giving presentations on the trees he has found and is collaborating on a book about them with the Old Colorado City Historical Society. He has been surprised by how many there are in Black Forest, saved from the timbering that cleared the area from the 1880s to the 1930s because the twisted trees would make poor lumber.
He is fascinated by the spirituality the trees represent.
iN“It’s evidence of earlier human activity that’s spiritually based,” he said.