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Stories in stone: Guide Rickey Hayes interprets the past at Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park

Rickey Hayes has spent years guiding tourists into Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park. He is patient with visitors’ questions and he has a warm, deep laugh. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

One of our archaeological treasures in the Four Corners is Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park. All visitors must be accompanied by an official Native guide and one of the best is Rickey Hayes, who knows his sites and coaxes stories from stones.

The park itself was the vision of Chief Jack House whose Weminuche band of Utes moved to the far western side of the Southern Ute Reservation rather than have their land allotted.

“Chief Ignacio said NO. This land belongs to all of us and most importantly for your children and grandchildren,” Hayes said. “Take care of it. Make it better. Honor your mother and father and elders.”

The Weminuche band moved close to Sleeping Ute Mountain. As Mesa Verde National Park thronged with tourists visiting Ancestral Puebloan sites, Chief House, born in 1888, envisioned a tribal park whose lands abutted Mesa Verde to the south. At 125,000 acres, the tribal park is twice the size of Mesa Verde.

The Butterfly Panel in Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park features ancient Hopi symbols and is a marker for winter solstice. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

As planned, the tribal park would open about six months a year, have less visitation, a primitive campground to welcome groups and enrolled tribal members as guides. What it would not have would be tribal members living within the park. For taking that stand for conservation and preservation, Chief House was vilified by opposing tribal members, his hogan burned at his winter camp and a rock art pictogram of him defaced.

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University of Colorado archaeologists finished the work of Earl Morris and stabilized ruins in the 1970s. A number of sites are named after Morris, including Morris III Site in Johnson Canyon with 25 rooms and four kivas.

“I had the opportunity to see the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park in the 1980s when Mr. Art Cuthair gave tours of what he called ‘the other side of Mesa Verde,’” archaeologist Michael Adler said. “It was the first time I saw the power of Indigenous archaeology, which is when inquiries into the archaeological past are defined by, driven by and completed with descendant communities.”

Park procedures and protocols developed, along with guides who could answer myriad questions posed by eager, if ignorant, tourists. Hayes is a guide with patience, a sense of humor and a deep knowledge of Puebloan sites learned from Hopi elders.

Rickey Hayes has spent years guiding tourists into Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park. He is patient with visitors’ questions and he has a warm, deep laugh. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

“I like coming out here. I like the quietness and spirituality. The world changes around us but not in the tribal park,” said Hayes, who had once been a tribal police officer and has now guided for 30 seasons. “I enjoy telling people how the Anasazi used to live. They respected each others’ circle.”

As we stand near a rock art site that Hayes gets ready to interpret, he said, “Here in the park the world comes to us, different people from different countries come to our area. I tell people how Indians see the world and what was passed down from our grandfathers. We still do our traditions. My son and I still do the sundance.”

Then he joked, “In the old days, we had a lot of trading posts, but now we go to Walmart.”

That’s the strength of Hayes’ presentations. He skillfully weaves the past and the present to provide a Native worldview about 1,000-year-old sites. Visitors listen and ask questions. He answers every one.

“If someone asks me a good question,” he said, “it pops up all sorts of old stories.”

Hayes and I have been to Porcupine House, Two Story House and Eagle’s Nest where he said, “Way up there, you are on top of the world. I like all the sites. They have their own personality.”

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One fall morning, we waited under a rock shelter as rain turned to tiny ice and graupel. Softly, he began to sing and soon the sun burst through clouds and mist. We’ve been to Inaccessible House in Navajo Canyon, Bone Awl Site in Soda Canyon, Hoot Owl House in Pine Canyon with its Moki steps and Casa Colorado.

“Some of these remote sites I only see two to three times a year. Who knows how many little sites are up there?” he said. “This was the true Mesa Verde. If you started in Mesa Verde, you’d wind up down here in the tribal park.”

Some of the best preserved and most remote of all Ancestral Puebloan dwellings have long been protected in Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, which receives a fraction of the tourists who visit Mesa Verde, yet it borders the national park on the south and west. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Walking canyon trails, our footfalls were silenced by forest duff and pine needles. Hayes went first, carrying a water bottle. Everywhere we went he felt the spirits were still there. He made an offering of water before we talked or entered a site.

He admonished his guests, “Watch out for that easy life. Listen to the old stories about the migrations. The Utes had summer and winter homes. They stayed out of the mountains in the winter to let the bears rest. Only the Utes have the Bear Dance where women choose their partners.”

Hayes continued, “We never lost our focus, our way of life. We still hold on to our traditions. Each tribe has its own songs and ceremonies.”

Hayes particularly likes to interpret a creation story rock art panel along the main entrance road. The Butterfly Panel, which is Pueblo I from between 500 to 700 A.D., is both an emergence and a solstice panel struck by winter light. He credits Walter Hannah and Virginia Wolff for first understanding the panel, “for bringing this panel back to life,” with its creation story, sipapu, and image of Grandmother Spider Woman.

Hayes said that for Native peoples centuries ago, “Grandmother Spider Woman told them to mark their clan signs wherever you go so that other clans will know where you came from, and who’s been there before you and after you.”

At this emergence site, a shadow from a large boulder casts a straight line in December and another shadow line bisects the site in June.

Rare, historic Ute Indian pictographs can be found in the tribal park near the Mancos River, including images of Chief Jack House and others at his winter camp. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

He told us with a smile that “when you show this site to the Hopis, they interpret it like it was done last week. Hopis say this generation is going to be challenged. We are going to be tested. These stories have come from the kiva and now they can be told.”

Hayes then told the Hopi stories of the change in worlds from the first through the fourth world. He comments on the clan signs and said, “This panel still speaks to us and tells us how to behave.”

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As a senior guide, Hayes may retire soon. We went with him last September and also enjoyed the company of his son. We drove high up out of the Mancos River valley and along the canyon rim to Porcupine House with its 60 rooms and four kivas. The site was built into the cliffs adjacent to water seeps and trickles of water are still there.

Mancos Canyon and Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park abound in both prehistoric and historic rock art, including historic panels depicting tribal police and ranching motifs. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Hayes made a gift of water and we quietly entered the site. The sky clouded over. The next day rain would close the dirt access road for the rest of the season. We were the last group at this pristine, remote site. Hayes and his son showed us a rare Ancestral Puebloan sandal hidden beneath a rock and not carted off into museum storage.

As we drove out, we stopped at a surface site named Earl Morris No. 33, a half-mile long with more than 200 rooms. Time stops in the tribal park. We saw Sleeping Ute Mountain to the west and the La Plata Mountains to the north. High up in the park, we saw no other roads or houses. We looked to the ground to see numerous sherd scatters from those who had come before. Rickey Hayes went silent. He let the wind whisper around us.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.

Jackson Butte stands out between Cortez and Shiprock, N.M., as the entrance to Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
The Butterfly Panel in Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park features ancient Hopi symbols and is a marker for winter solstice. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Eagle’s Nest is one of the most famous cliff dwellings in Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park. Visitors never forget the ladder they have to climb to reach the site. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Eagle’s Nest is one of the most famous cliff dwellings in Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park. Visitors never forget the ladder they have to climb to reach the site. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Some of the best preserved and most remote of all Ancestral Puebloan dwellings have long been protected in Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, which receives a fraction of the tourists who visit Mesa Verde, yet it borders the national park on the south and west. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Some of the best preserved and most remote of all Ancestral Puebloan dwellings have long been protected in Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, which receives a fraction of the tourists who visit Mesa Verde, yet it borders the national park on the south and west. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Some of the best preserved and most remote of all Ancestral Puebloan dwellings have long been protected in Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, which receives a fraction of the tourists who visit Mesa Verde, yet it borders the national park on the south and west. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Rare, historic Ute Indian pictographs can be found in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park near the Mancos River, including images of Chief Jack House and others at his winter camp. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Rare, historic Ute Indian pictographs can be found in the tribal park near the Mancos River, including images of Chief Jack House and others at his winter camp. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Senior Guide Rickey Hayes demonstrates how at certain times of the year a shaft of light bisects this Ancestral Puebloan rock art panel. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Some of the best preserved and most remote of all Ancestral Puebloan dwellings have long been protected in Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, which receives a fraction of the tourists who visit Mesa Verde, yet it borders the national park on the south and west. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Some of the best preserved and most remote of all Ancestral Puebloan dwellings have long been protected in Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, which receives a fraction of the tourists who visit Mesa Verde, yet it borders the national park on the south and west. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Some of the best preserved and most remote of all Ancestral Puebloan dwellings have long been protected in Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, which receives a fraction of the tourists who visit Mesa Verde, yet it borders the national park on the south and west. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Mancos Canyon and Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park abound in both prehistoric and historic rock art, including historic panels depicting tribal police and ranching motifs. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)