Ethnobotany with Kids - Learning about Traditional Ute Plant Knowledge
By Anita Evans
A father and daughter investigating a native plant along the trail.
Plants – we all have a relationship with them. This bond with nature is an integral part of the cultures of many indigenous people, and the use of native plants by the Ute People of Western Colorado is particularly engaging. This traditional use of plants for medicinal, cultural, and culinary purposes by native peoples is called ethnobotany.
It is truly amazing that the Ute people have thrived for thousands of years in the harsh climate conditions of Western Colorado. The Utes, and their ancestors, moved through different ecosystems corresponding with the seasons as food became available, as shown in artifacts dating back 12,900 years at the Eagle Rock Shelter Archeological dig in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.
Many important plants to the Utes grow abundantly on local public lands, and some are still used in traditional Ute Ceremonies. One such plant seen along the lower elevations of Grand Mesa and the Uncompahgre Plateau is the Banana Yucca. Its fruit, flowers, and stalks are edible, and people make twine by braiding fibers stripped from the leaves. Every part of the common Utah Juniper also has a use. The Utes use its bark for sandals, thatching, woven bags, and rope. The leaves and berries are high in vitamin C, offering a natural boost to immune systems. The Coyote Willow grows commonly along many of the creeks and rivers here in Western Colorado. Ute people make willow bark tea for headaches, fever, pain, and inflammation; it contains salicylic acid, the main ingredient of aspirin. Another plant historically used by the Ute people is the Pinyon Pine, which offers both high calorie, nutritious nuts in the fall and pitch used for waterproofing water baskets. A common desert bush, Mormon Tea, is used as a medicinal drink to treat a cough or cold and also as a stimulant similar to caffeine. And of course, the Big Sagebrush, which is used as a medicine for stomach problems and infection, as well as a cleansing incense when burned in a variety of spiritual ceremonies. It is important to note that these plants should not be eaten unless you have specific knowledge on how to prepare them for consumption.
It is a joy to share this special plant knowledge with young people, and there are several places on the Western Slope that provide easy access to learning more about traditional uses of these native plants: The Ute Museum in Montrose, the Ute Learning and Ethnobotany Garden in Grand Junction, and our local educational arm of the Bureau of Land Management – Colorado Canyons Association.
The Ute Museum, located at 17253 Chipeta Road, Montrose, was established in 1956 near the ranch of Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta. This year, the Ute Indian Museum and its partner museums across the state will provide virtual field trips that explore the state’s history, people, and environment in fun and educational ways. Aligned with Colorado Academic Standards, the programs are taught by talented educators in History Colorado museums all over the state. To learn more or to sign up, visit https://www.historycolorado.org/virtual-field-trips. The History Take Out program is changing its structure for school year 20-21. You can now rent one of the Ute Museum’s popular History Take Out kits to use remotely or in your school. Through objects, photographs, and a large walk-on map of the state, students will uncover the “footprints” various cultures and industries left behind. For more information on this program, visit https://www.historycolorado.org/ute-indian-museum-history-take-out. Open seven days a week, the Ute Museum has many award winning indoor and outdoor exhibits. Included in the outdoor exhibits is a native plant garden that combines the plant knowledge of the Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Tribe, and the Ute Indian Tribe of Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah. More about the Ute Museum can be found at historycolorado.org/ute-indian-museum.
The Ute Learning Garden, also called the Clifford Duncan Memorial Garden, in Grand Junction is located at the CSU Extension office for the Tri-River Area at 2775 Highway 50. It is designed to familiarize students and visitors with native plants used by the Ute people, the movement of the Utes through various life zones, and the relationship between the Utes and the land. Working with the Ute Museum, the Ute Learning Garden was established in 2009 as part of the Ute Ethnobotany Project, seeking to preserve the traditional plant knowledge of the Ute culture. A brochure about the Ute Learning Garden can be found at https://tra.extension.colostate.edu/gardening-hort/. Interactive docent-led tours are available for groups of any size and age!
Colorado Canyons Association (CCA), in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, is developing a “Junior Ranger Program” for the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, and the McInnis National Conservation Area. Learners of all ages can earn badges by completing a number of questions in the information packets, based on age. Each packet gives resources to use along the trail while learning about native plants, geology, and animal and human impact on these public lands. These Junior Ranger booklets will be available on-line and in packet form later this fall. More information can be found at https://www.coloradocanyonsassociation.org/, and a CCA video tour of the Eagle Rock Shelter can be found at https://youtu.be/1rc0rkVd7iE.
So, gather your young ones and share some valuable time together learning more about the original inhabitants of the Western Slope, the Utes, and their resourceful use of native plants at these amazing local resources!