For years, archaeologists have been documenting hundreds of wooden shelters left by Native Americans in northern Colorado, in a time-is-of-the-essence project as the land reclaims the historic structures.
Now, archaeologists are turning their attention to the largely undocumented southwestern region of the state before it’s too late.
“It is a rush with time to get them documented before they’re all gone, which is going to be in next generation or two,” said Curtis Martin, an archaeologist who leads the Colorado Wickiup Project.
Archaeologists have been recording the wooden shelters, widely known as “wickiups,” for decades, but a concerted effort was started in 2003 when the Dominquez Archaeological Research Group, based in Grand Junction, started the Wickiup Project.
The term “wickiup” is the word used by archaeologists for the shelters. Native American tribes have their own words for the structures.
Made by stacking wooden logs in a cone form, they served as basic, temporary shelters.
Martin said wickiups were used more as bedrooms than houses. The average shelter was about 4- to 5-feet high and was used only for a short time, likely when Native people were on the move hunting or visiting ceremonial sites.
To date, the Wickiup Project has documented 235 wickiups at 99 sites. The project has focused mostly on the Uncompahgre Plateau and Northwest Colorado, on lands the Ute tribe occupied before Western settlers took their land through various treaties.
Martin hopes the scope of the project will soon expand.
“I know there’s a lot of wickiups out there (in Southwest Colorado), we just haven’t done any work yet,” he said. “But that’s high on our ‘what’s next?’ list.”
In Southwest Colorado, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, south of Durango, and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, near Cortez, will participate in the documentation project.
Lindsay Box, a spokeswoman for the Southern Ute tribe, wrote in an email that the tribe is partnering with the Wickiup Project to identify wickiup sites in an effort to preserve and protect them, but she declined to comment further.
For Native Americans, documenting and protecting wickiups is important to honor the land and the people who came before, especially for future generations, said Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a former councilwoman for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
“As a young student in the public school system, when I did research on my tribe, it was difficult to find material because not a whole lot was published out there,” she said. “These are the types of projects that do need to record information for students of tomorrow.”
Documenting the sites is a delicate act. Native people believe that, out of respect for their ancestors, historic sites should not be disturbed and items should never be removed, which can conflict with the way archaeologists conduct field work.
The best way to resolve this conflict, Lopez-Whiteskunk said, is for archaeologists to consult with tribes before conducting any work.
“There needs to be collaboration with the Native people,” she said. “We need to be the storytellers because we’ve already gone through many generations of someone else telling our stories, and not necessarily getting it right.”
The wickiups certainly have a story to tell.
Archaeologists believe indigenous people have been using some form of wooden structures for shelter for at least the past 20,000 years. There’s evidence in Siberia, for instance, of similar structures that date back 18,000 years – but those were made of mammoth bones.
“Everyone was building structures out of whatever materials were close,” said Carl Conner, president of the board of the Dominquez Archaeological Research Group. “And everyone wanted to live in some sort of structure. There used to be a lot of scary animals out there.”
The oldest shelter the Wickiup Project has been able to confirm dates back to 1795. Some sites might be older, but current technology is not able to confirm that, Martin said.
The only way to date the structures is to find wooden poles Native people cut with metal axes, which allows archaeologists to date the year the live tree was cut. Before metal axes, tribes did not typically cut live trees.
But perhaps more interesting than the oldest shelter, Martin said, is the most recently built wickiup archaeologists have found, which dates to 1916 – a time when Utes were taken off the land, prohibited from entering Colorado and put onto reservations.
That’s not something you typically find in the history books, Martin said.
“They were still here, living under the radar, away from people,” he said.
Conner said structures documented just 20 years ago have fallen to the ground and disappeared, reinforcing the haste of the project.
“Once they hit the ground, they disappear pretty quickly,” he said. “It is an endangered resource.”
Lopez-Whiteskunk, however, said that even when the structures disappear, the story of Native people and how they lived on the land remains, passed down from generation to generation, through storytelling.
The Ute creation story says Native people were made and left to live in the mountains. Lopez-Whiteskunk said a deep respect of the land is inherent to indigenous tribes, who used the resources around them and always tried to not leave a trace.
“We believe to always leave things better than you found it,” she said. “Almost as if you were never there.”
This article has been updated to clarify Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk is a former Ute Mountain Ute council member.