Trees’ history, meaning taking shape

Douglas County called among the top spots for viewing Ute Indian Prayer Trees

Julie A. Taylor
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 11/16/17

An odd pair of trees lean unlike the others in the grove near Castle Rock. The ponderosa pines rise from the ground at a crooked angle, then straighten. An untrained eye could walk past without …

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Trees’ history, meaning taking shape

Douglas County called among the top spots for viewing Ute Indian Prayer Trees

Posted

An odd pair of trees lean unlike the others in the grove near Castle Rock. The ponderosa pines rise from the ground at a crooked angle, then straighten. An untrained eye could walk past without realizing the depth of history those Dawson Butte Ranch Open Space trees carry.

A growing number of researchers say that centuries ago, Native Americans chose certain trees to become markers, pointing their descendants to water and trails. Today they are known as culturally modified trees.

“Bottom line, in my opinion, Douglas County is one of the top five counties across Colorado for viewing culturally modified trees ...,” Colorado historian and author John Wesley Anderson said.

Sometimes called Ute Indian Prayer Trees, indigenous tribes would hack off a section of bark up to 8 feet, or bend the trees to point in certain directions, or even create a spiral in the trunk. But because of insects, wildfires and lack of awareness, these living artifacts are disappearing.

Researchers began to understand the historical significance and protect the trees across North America in the 1980s, but more are being discovered. And with further studies, more information is presenting itself.   

Five years ago, Anderson — an El Paso County resident who served as sheriff there from 1995-2003 — started to compile a book on modified trees in the Pike’s Peak region. As he talked with leading researchers, and met with Ute elders, he became more invested in the legacy the tribes left behind.

After he published his book, he delved deeper into the topic, and now, along with others, believes the Comanche also had a hand in shaping trees found around Douglas County.

As a child, Anderson often found arrowheads, and even a tomahawk head once.

“It was fascinating to me as a kid, and I would wonder: how long has this been here?” Anderson said. “To me, it’s that holding, and feeling and touching that object that connected me to that person 3 or 400 years ago.”

His El Paso County school never taught him that they were located near a former Indian reservation, and he only realized this somewhat recently while looking at an 1886 map.

The twisted trees helped Anderson appreciate the people who created the shapes and scarring, and as he continues his research, he now focuses on how the natives viewed the entire ecosystem.

“The indigenous people in Colorado were more advanced culturally than ever given credit for,” Anderson said, and notes that the Utes are the only remaining tribe on the two reservations left in Colorado.  

Most tree modifications are estimated to have happened in the 1800s, during the time when trappers, then gold miners and eventually farmers pushed the Utes from their land. The normal lifespan of a ponderosa pine is 300 to 600 years, meaning that if the trees don’t succumb to plague, fires or other influences, they will die out in the next few hundred years.  

A high concentration of the trees can be found in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, protecting the artifacts.

Other than that, conservation efforts aren’t as high as Anderson and his research peers would like.

“I think we’re behind the curve here. Part of that is that there’s so little that’s known about culturally modified trees in Colorado,” said Anderson. “There’s even some pushback from people on and off the conservation about whether prayer trees actually exist.”

The Douglas Land Conservatory echos the need for better care of the trees in the county.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no conservation plan in place to identify and conserve those culturally modified trees,” said Executive Director Patti Hostetler.“Hopefully those trees won’t be taken down through forest management processes and can be studied later on.”

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