In late winter or early spring when food was scarce, it was the tradition of Ute, Navajo and Apache women to peel the bark of a ponderosa pine to reach the soft, edible inner layer. The bark could be used as a building material.
Once peeled, the bark never grew back.
Southern Ute elders and guest speakers are planning two days of presentations and tours on Friday and Saturday to explain the historic and cultural significance of such culturally modified trees, called Spirit or Prayer trees by the Utes.
Culturally modified trees were a food source, held spiritual significance, or were a means of marking a path or telling a story for tribes throughout the world, yet few measures are in place to protect them.
“These trees are sometimes cut down for gas and oil drilling, or vandalized,” Southern Ute tribal elder James Jefferson said. “We want to inform the public about the trees and figure out ways to preserve them.”
But preservation is difficult, because trees are ephemeral, said Andrew Gulliford, chairman of the La Plata County Historic Preservation Review Commission.
“Unlike something on stone or rock, like a petroglyph, trees just aren’t looked at the same way,” he said. “It’s a different kind of resource.”
In some cases, Gulliford said, the trees are inventoried by the U.S. Forest Service or other agencies, which can protect the trees from burning or logging. Others are protected within the boundaries of national parks, such as those in the Great Sand Dunes National Park in the San Luis Valley.
But modified trees on private property can be lost to development when landowners don’t realize their significance, or don’t care.
Jefferson said the Friday and Saturday events will explain the meanings of burial, medicine, trail marker, ceremonial and message, or “story,” trees, and how to identify them.
Presentations will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday at the Sky Ute Casino Resort, 14324 Colorado Highway 172 in Ignacio.
A banquet will begin at the casino at 6 p.m. Banquet attendance costs $17 per person.
For times and meeting places for Saturday’s tours, contact James Jefferson at 749-4922.
Both days’ events are open to the public.