BAILEY – Rooted on a former Ute encampment in the foothills of the Front Range, the piney crown of a long-lived ponderosa pine pokes nearly 100 feet into the sky. Its trunk, gnarled and knobbly with age, is hollowed at the bottom, offering what could be a narrow shelter for someone to hunt from. Higher up, there’s a peephole – just wide enough for an arrow – carved in the cinnamon-colored bark.
The tree’s trunk begins to spiral near the top, marking what some believe was a high energy source, ideal for healing, along what was a heavily traveled Native American trade route.
Before there were highway signs, trees served as natural signposts through the forest, marking important sites, such as water sources, sacred healing spots, hunting lookouts and birthing stations, Janet Shown, co-founder of The Association for Native American Sacred Trees and Places, said as she guided a group of curious people through the woods behind Glen Isle Resort in Bailey.
People are drawn to the unusually-shaped trees, known to some as culturally-modified trees or marker trees, and the tales some say they tell, yet they are entangled in controversy. Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribal officials say no evidence of shaped trees is found in their oral traditions and some archaeologists point to nature to account for the trees’ twists and turns.
Marker trees dot the 160-acre property of Glen Isle, a former railroad depot that first opened in the early 1900s. The 120-year-old Adirondack-style lodge now serves as a resort off U.S. Highway 285 and as a cultural hub for Native American artifacts. A large collection of Native American dolls, acquired by the resort’s former owner, is displayed inside the two-story building, along with artifacts such as beaded moccasins, cradle boards made from deer hide and other artifacts dating back to 1000 A.D.
While touching the curling bark over a straight-edged scar on a ponderosa pine, Shown said the girdling likely was done about 150 to 200 years ago, before the last Utes were forced off Glen Isle’s surrounding land in the 1880s. Native Americans often used a tree’s soft inner bark – the nutrient-rich cambium layer – to make medicinal teas.
The “medicine trees” would give sustenance to women giving birth or to those on their menstrual cycle, Shown said.
“If Native Americans did a bark peel, they probably did this other very strange and unusual shape,” she said, pointing upward toward a thick arm of the tree that juts out horizontally and then straight up, like a goalpost.
Some tribal members, and members of The Association for Native American Sacred Trees and Places, fear the historic trees will be chopped down as they say their significance remains largely unrecognized. The organization hopes to preserve the trees and the stories they tell by promoting responsible stewardship and working at a policy level, Shown said. Shown worked at Glen Isle in the 1970s and returned to help the resort’s new owners identify important trees on their property, using the knowledge passed along from James Jefferson, a Southern Ute elder.
But a controversy stems from the twists and turns of the so-called culturally modified trees. Some archaeologists say the bizarre shapes are the consequence of natural phenomenon, like heavy snowpack, lightning or wind.
Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribal officials say their ancestors had no need to bend trees to provide direction. They knew their landscape well and used the mountains, stars, creeks and other landmarks to indicate their routes and hunting grounds, according to an official statement tribal leaders sent to federal, state and local governments in 2019.
According to Shown and fellow NASTaP cofounder Jefferson, many of the trees identified as markers across the Front Range, Royal Gorge and San Luis Valley – aboriginal territory and traditional hunting grounds for Ute bands – were intentionally changed by Native Americans to signal an important place in the forest.
The Utes were masters at grafting, often binding two pieces of a tree together with rope or hay, to construct sturdy perches to hunt from or to build a window, framing sacred places in the distance, Shown said.
In Colorado Springs, many trees frame Pike’s Peak, also known as Tava or Sun Mountain, the most sacred mountain to the Utes, Shown said.
“It’s scary to think of how many have been cut,” Shown said while standing behind Glen Isle Resort, pointing across the road toward land owned by the state’s forest service. “They took a masticator and just decimated the forest. ... We know this is a sacred site because of the number of (modified) trees around here and we wonder how many were lost. That happens all the time.”
Many of the modified trees on the Glen Isle property are ponderosa pines, which are self-pruning conifers native to western North America. As the tree matures and more branches grow, the sun can’t reach the bottom branches, so they die and break off.
In the forest near Glen Isle, the thick, sturdy branches that exist high on a ponderosa pine are often a result of grafting, Shown said.
The color of the bark is also a good tool to determine if a tree was modified by Natives before they were forced off the land. Ponderosa bark appears gray during its younger stages of life and as it matures, it turns more red, forming broad pieces that break apart in large jigsaw puzzle-like pieces.
At about 200 years, about a fourth of a tree’s bark flaunts a red hue and at 400 years, almost all of its bark will be so, Shown said.
Sometimes, it’s tricky to determine if a tree was modified by animals or naturally, she said.
“What we say in NASTaP is that there’s definite yeses, there’s definite noes and there’s definite maybes. ... If I don’t see three or more signs of human modification, I just figure it’s a maybe tree,” Shown said. “But we know that if there’s one modified tree in an area, there’s often more.”
And if there are several signs of human modification, that’s also a good indication the tree served as a marker hundreds of years ago, she said.
But tracing the roots of the bizarre trees is more complicated.
As NASTaP aims to preserve the culturally-modified trees that it believes serve as important historical markers, other tribal members and archaeologists say there’s no such thing – the trees are just bent.
Last summer, the Colorado Council of Professional Archaeologists issued a statement saying there’s no scientific evidence that humans altered the growth of the trees and that identifying them as such, “diverts valuable resources that could otherwise be used to document and protect legitimate cultural resources and results in the dissemination of false and misleading information to the lay public.”
The CCPA cited the six-page statement sent by officials of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain tribes that says the modification isn’t part of tradition.
“Some individuals, claiming to possess Ute cultural knowledge, have incorrectly asserted that Ute people purposefully bent trees for cultural purposes,” the 2019 statement reads. “According to tribal elders, tribal historians, spiritual leaders and traditional practitioners from the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribes agree this is not a known Ute practice within our oral tradition; nor is it practiced today.”
The historic preservation officers for the tribes did not respond to phone calls and emails, or said they were unable to comment.
Some individual families may have had their own tradition of bending trees, but to ascribe those traditions to Ute general customs on behalf of all Ute people is inaccurate, tribal leaders wrote in the statement. The only tree the Southern Ute tribe considers culturally modified, which is not physically bent, is known as a “peeled tree,” in which bark is intentionally peeled from a ponderosa pine and occasionally from aspen, the statement said.
“There are certainly trees that we see evidence of cultural modification by native people from a long time ago, in some cases a few hundred centuries,” Greg Wolff, president of the CCPA said.
That Native Americans harvested natural resources, including tree bark, for medicinal purposes and for food during times of food scarcity is well documented, Wolff said.
But twisted trunks appearing as trail markers or pointing toward a sacred peak aren’t culturally modified, he said.
“The CCPA statement is based on archaeological, historical and ethnographic documentation and also forestry science, archaeological science,” Wolff said. “A lot of times what people ascribe to a cultural basis can often be explained by natural phenomenon. It is hard when folks categorically say a strange looking tree had to have been caused by human intervention.”
Wolff understands why so many people would be intrigued by the unusual trees.
“It’s natural to be interested in such a phenomenon. There’s an innate human curiosity about the natural world,” he said. “We’re curious, we want to know about things that are remarkable to us. But in many of these cases there are natural explanations for why these trees appear out of the ordinary.”
Still, he urged caution.
“Folks will believe what they want to believe, but again, scientific evidence does not support a lot of those cases and neither does the statement provided by the official Ute preservation departments,” he said.
Culturally-modified trees have been contested for years. Jefferson, a Southern Ute elder and cofounder of NASTaP, is among those who disagree with the official Ute statement, contending that culturally-modified trees are an integral part of the Utes’ oral tradition.
“This is part of history,” said Jefferson, who lives on the Southern Ute reservation in Ignacio. “We are trying to prove that this is all written history. All of the things that western science is discovering, the Indian people knew about and so they are only verifying what we knew, what the old people knew 10,000 years ago.”
Jefferson, 88, said he hopes to preserve the tradition passed down from his elders. He disputes the statement from the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes and hopes it will be reversed.
“A lot of tribal people know about (the tradition), they just don’t want to be fighting with all of these archaeologists,” Jefferson said. “These archaeologists are not Indian and never lived it. Never experienced like I have. We experienced all of this and we learned from our elders – and those are who told us.”
Sequoia Subia, whose entire family is tribally enrolled and who recently became a member of NASTaP, thinks it’s important to raise awareness around the trees to preserve the oral tradition that she has learned from her mother.
“This is the area my ancestors lived in,” Subia said while walking along the Glen Isle Resort property. “Being a descendant of medicine men, I know that this is stuff that my grandfathers once did decades ago.”