"Ute Prayer Trees"

The revival of an Indigenous tradition that never existed

Story by Nathan Goodman

Art by Caroline Li


After my first triumphant week of summer research, I started to freak out as I pulled up to the parking lot of the event site. As part of my research on the “Impacts of Public Lands Management on Indigenous Peoples of the Pikes Peak Region,” I was attending the tenth annual “One Nation Walking Together Intertribal Powwow.” It was my first stab at fieldwork. Naturally, I was terrified. What was I—some white, privileged, wannabe social justice warrior—supposed to do at an Indigenous community event? Was I supposed to just pretend I belonged? My mind raced through all the ways I could make myself invisible. To my surprise, I was not so alone in my whiteness after all. 

White people dominated the event by a ratio of roughly three-to-one. Old retirees wandered from stand to stand, marveling at the range of Indian paraphernalia. I silently wondered if this was as strange for them as it was for me. During the opening ceremony, the Indigenous MC invited the “guest of honor”—the awkwardly smiling Colorado Springs city mayor, John Suthers—to say a few words. Reading aloud from his prepared speech, Mayor Suthers commented on the historical presence of the Ute Indians: “You know, they were the oldest residents of Colorado. We named Ute Pass after them. Zebulon Pike—the great American pioneer—saw as many as 3,000 of them during his travels.” The enthralled crowd murmured in approval. While the Ute peoples are most often identified as thehistorical inhabitants of Colorado, city officials report that at least thirty tribes have ancestral claim to the Pikes Peak Region. The Southern Utes and the Ute Mountain Utes receive the most attention because they are the only Indian reservations that haven’t been pushed out of the state. 

Like any great showman, Suthers closed his speech by rolling out the highlights: “This summer, come back to Colorado Springs! Remember to visit Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak, America’s Mountain!” As he joined the powwow MC for a ceremonial dance, Suthers smiled back at the crowd, beaming with corny pride and lacking any recognition of the irony splitting my head like an axe. Indigenous members of the audience didn’t seem to care that he had called Pikes Peak “America’s Mountain.” It was perhaps what they were expecting.

So with more questions than answers, I left early. It would be a few weeks until I realized this powwow was not a freak incident. In fact, the attitudes of the mostly white audience are emblematic of Colorado Springs residents’ perception of Indian culture. And while Mayor Suthers’ seemingly innocent remarks were alarmingly insensitive, they were mostly harmless. My soon-to-be-acquaintance, former Colorado Springs sheriff and Lockheed Martin security contractor, John Anderson, is another story.

* * * 

Enter Fox Run Regional Park and you’ll notice families, dog walkers, and runners enjoying a variety of outdoor amenities. You’ll also see an abundance of strangely bent trees, with the trunk breaking out from the main body and continuing up at odd angles. If your timing is right, you may notice tour groups of older Colorado Springs residents—or sometimes schoolchildren—stopping periodically to examine and discuss the trees.

The leader of these groups is typically the white, middle-aged John Anderson, who claims to have first become aware of the “Indigenous origin” of these trees sometime in the mid-’80s. He says that he didn’t think much about them until the Black Forest Fire came through in 2013. It was then that he realized the raging threat to his local community’s “Prayer Trees.” Coincidentally timed with his retirement from Lockheed Martin, Anderson began his new career as a “Ute Cultural Historian,” advocating for the maligned and neglected trees.

As noted in his seminar presentation materials—more specifically, one titled “The Wind is the Breath of the Creator,” the Utes “believed Prayer Trees lifted their prayers up the tree towards their Creator, where their prayers were intermingled with the prayers of their tribal ancestors who had previously prayed around the tree…when the winds [would blow], they felt the pine needles released their prayers, which would be carried across the land for the next 800 years.” From his own assessment, it would appear that Anderson is doing very important work. From a fully considered assessment, however, much of what Anderson says is deeply problematic.

In just a few years, Anderson’s “Ute Prayer Tree” tour operations have escalated into a full-fledged business venture. Now he’s holding seminars around the state, performing private and public consultations, and working on publishing his second coffee table book. In a particularly controversial event, he acquired an El Paso County contract to catalogue “Prayer Trees” using funds from an account related to the county’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) budget—an illicit maneuver, given that Anderson is not a licensed archaeologist and thus an unqualified recipient of public funds. Though people have been interested in the idea of “Ute Prayer Trees” for some time (with significant support stemming from the Pikes Peak Historical Society), “knowledge” about the “Prayer Trees” has never been as available to the public as it is now.

But this new accessibility isn’t a product of Anderson’s civic virtue. And it’s limited, anyway, because what Anderson has really created is a marketable commodity. Anyone can learn about the trees, but you have to buy a book first, attend a lecture with a fee, or afford to pay $250 per hour to “formally” identify trees on your own property (before travel expenses for Anderson). Anderson is essentially marketing the cultural knowledge of an oppressed group to a mainstream audience. This is problematic in and of itself because the sale of traditional practices to non-members has the potential to reveal “taboo” knowledge and cheapen ancestral teachings by presenting over-simplified histories. Plus, it puts this knowledge in the hands of people who are unaware of its larger cultural context, and are therefore more liable to manipulate and distort what they learn. All these issues, though, are secondary to the foremost concern in this particular case: the fact that Anderson’s claim about the historical origin of these trees is disputed by foresters, professional archaeologists, and—most importantly—official representatives of all three Ute tribes.

When I first talked on the phone with Cassandra Atencio, the cultural liaison for the Southern Ute Tribe, I’d hardly even mentioned I was from Colorado Springs before she started attacking the regional fixation on the so-called “Prayer Trees.” “We are a mountain people,” she said. “We would never do this to trees.” While there are some examples of legitimate culturally modified trees (such as peeled-bark trees, where a layer of the tree is eaten), official representatives of the Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Ute, and Ute Indian Tribes have been insistent that bent “Prayer Trees” should not be attributed to their people. The trees do not appear in recorded oral histories or their ethnographic record. And aside from the sheer impracticality of a migratory people meticulously pampering and styling trees they only come across periodically in their travels, there’s no evidence supporting an anthropogenic basis for the bends in the trees. Local foresters have taken coring samples of the trees (with the permission of Terry Knight, a Ute Mountain Ute member and the state Tribal Historic Preservation Officer) and discovered that they were only 60 to 70 years old—they started growing well after Ute peoples had been pushed out of the region.

There are plenty of legitimate scientific explanations for why the trees are bent in such a way (like snowpack changes or genetic tendencies). There is no reason to jump to the most unlikely and controversial explanation. Yet Anderson still finds support. He calls attention to Indigenous figures and medicine men from the ‘80s and ‘90s who have cited ancestral ties to the trees. Anderson leverages their claims against current tribal leadership. Hismost frequently referenced resource is Dr. James Jefferson, a Southern Ute member who wrote a book on Ute history in the 1970s. Together, they made several unofficial “surveys” through Ute territory identifying “Prayer Trees” (albeit, without formal consent from tribal government). Jefferson is very explicit that the Ute people had a role in creating the trees and provides most of the Indigenous credibility behind Anderson’s crusade. The people Anderson recruits for his local “Prayer Tree” tours and talks look to Jefferson as primary proof of Anderson’s claims.

The problem is that Jefferson is in no way an official representative of any Ute tribe. His popularity draws attention to a critical double standard that American Indians face, which other cultural groups usually do not have to worry about. For instance, would people doing research on traditional Gaelic war shields ask a random part-Irish person (with no clear credentials or experience) for their opinion? Why, then, do non-Indian people often ask a single Indian person questions as if they are the sole representative of an entire tradition and tribe? Taking the word of official tribal representatives is essential. They have been placed in those positions because they know their tribe’s history and traditions. Unfortunately, this perspective is lost on many members of the Colorado Springs community. 

While I have spent time with the Utes more recently, my first significant exposure to Indian affairs came at Standing Rock, a pan-Indian, grassroots movement that called for Indigenous sovereignty in the face of environmental degradation and cultural genocide. The organizers welcomed non-Indians, with the particular caveat that they avoid adopting and manipulating Indigenous culture. This was a concern at Standing Rock because people who are disconnected from their own cultural heritage often have a deep desire to be part of a larger tradition. So while it may be tempting, white people must not fill their own cultural void with the historical traditions of Indigenous peoples. All this caution comes in the wake of a long-standing trend in which white people fetishize Indians, romanticizing their way of life, and buying into the culture of Indian kitsch. For Colorado Springs residents who may not have a significant sense of heritage, the fixation over “Prayer Trees” can turn into just this sort of cheap romanticization. Anderson plays on these tendencies and guides the Colorado Springs community toward illusory spiritual uplift.

The perpetrators of this kind of cultural appropriation are often not evil. Misguided, maybe. But very little deliberate malice comes from people who buy Indian-stylized art or who smoke ritual plants from a friend’s decked-out “ceremonial pipe.” Likewise, the participants of the powwow I attended this summer are not “bad” for going to an event that commercializes Indians. Still, it is important to recognize that, in some cases, even well-intentioned people are engaging in the theft of Indigenous intellectual property. Co-opting Indigenous knowledge and control over cultural resources imposes unwanted Western perspectives on Indigenous peoples. Diminishing Indigenous people’s primacy over traditional knowledge challenges their ability to effectively self-govern.     

Having assembled a few token “Ute representatives,” Anderson uses his Indigenous cohorts as a shield to ward off criticism from official tribal leadership. For an otherwise well-intentioned white person, it can be difficult to decide which Indigenous voice to listen to. The fear that Indigenous government officials do not accurately represent their people’s cultural history is entirely valid. So why not, then, immediately jump on the bandwagon of the renegade with a sexy story claiming censorship? 

This temptation fails to recognize the idiosyncrasies of the relationship between the American mainstream and sovereign tribal nations. According to international treaties between the U.S. government and tribal entities, Americans are required to respect the sovereignty and self-determination of Indigenous peoples within their territory. Much of this “respect for sovereignty” was awarded ex post facto after many Indigenous communities had already been demolished. In practice, the U.S. has an abhorrent track record of breaking treaties. Standing Rock, a recent example, is only a drop in the bucket. That’s all the more reason for individuals to recognize their role in the international strata of U.S.-Indigenous relations and give total deference to tribal government on social and cultural issues.

So while it may be legitimate for tribal members to challenge their leaders on matters of traditional knowledge, it is not the place for the general public. That is exactly the colonial mindset we need to move beyond. A decolonial mindset is one in which we stop pretending to have any legitimate role in mitigating intra-tribal conflict—that is, we start talking less and listening first. 

John Anderson and his ilk have unwittingly inserted themselves into a position that challenges Indigenous political and cultural sovereignty. They have been complicit in forming a monopoly on truth that plays into a centuries-old system of appropriation and cultural whitewashing. It is not our place to decide “which Indian knows more about their culture.” It is, however, our responsibility to respect the role of a self-determining government and to help maintain Indigenous control over traditional knowledge—white voices should be quiet by comparison.

If these trees prove anything, it’s that symbols matter. The obsession with “Ute Prayer Trees” indicates a particular level of presumption among members of the non-Indigenous community in Colorado Springs. Though John Anderson’s stated goal is to “reconnect Ute peoples to their Prayer Trees and cultural home,” the audience that consumes his products is mostly white and wealthy. At a meeting of the Pikes Peak Archaeological Society (of which Anderson is a part), one member earnestly addressed the group regarding Ute artifacts: “We know more about their history than they do, so how will they ever know anything unless they listen to us?” Anderson’s posse legitimately believes they are supporting Indigenous culture by learning about it through the most readily accessible means. It might be nice, but that doesn’t mean it’s correct, especially when there are other incentives at work.

 Underneath this general feeling of amicability is a sense of pride—of feeling “cultured” or living on the “right side of history.” The idea of “Ute Prayer Trees” as special things that are endemic to your community and live in your own backyard fulfills that same urge. It provokes a feeling of exceptionalism, a feeling that can become addictive. It makes people feel nice to know they have a relic of a long-gone culture next to their home. They can look at it, touch it, and think of all the people who worshipped at the same spot for hundreds of years. But in doing so, they are treating Indigenous culture as something that sits on a museum shelf: dead and static, a history you read about in a book. Minimizing cultural sites to “pieces of heritage” defies all Indigenous sense of meaning and place—the Ute people, though displaced, are not dead, and their ancestors exist in the present just as much as the past. They are a people that say, “when forever comes, we will be here.” Colorado Springs residents’ idea that Indigenous cultural resources—real or not—can be circumscribed by their property is, from an Indigenous perspective, highly disrespectful.

As much as John Anderson inspires our collective ire, we would be ill-advised to construe the narrative of the “Ute Prayer Tree” saga as nothing more than exposing some local guy trying to make money. Defaming an individual only goes so far. It does little to catalyze real, societal change. The reality is that there are a lot of Anderson-like figures in the world, so we need to examine the social circumstances that lead to the creation of people like him. In other words, why does Colorado Springs have a John Anderson? 

One explanation is the phenomenon of white saviorism—white people think they have to save bedraggled and oppressed minority groups that “cannot help themselves.” White saviorism in this case leads people to think that Indigenous people are unable to care after the “Prayer Trees” (or lack the knowledge to remember them at all), so the friendly, upper middle class residents of Colorado Springs have to take up the burden. It is an “act of service” that is condescending and patronizing, and creates a narrative that lends itself well to Anderson’s purposes.

A few months ago, I spoke with Dr. Linda Watts, a former Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, about what properly constitutes truth in ethnography. She insists that since a lot of people believe the “Prayer Trees” are real (both white people and some tribal members, like Dr. Jefferson) they have become culturally significant—regardless of the truth of their claims. Even myth is part of culture, and a real (albeit recent) culture has developed around the the trees which have been labeled “Prayer Trees.” At what point does a subculture built around loving trees become harmful and symbolic of larger oppressive structures? It is ever our place to tell people not to enjoy trees?

Ultimately, I am no expert on Indigenous culture, nor am I a professional ethnographer. I researched this topic intensively over the summer, but I have no right to say whether anything is or is not culturally significant to a particular group. My argument is chiefly one in respect to tribal sovereignty. People can love trees all they want for being cool, beautiful, even spiritual. But the point at which those trees are forcibly inserted into another people’s culture and pasted into their history is when things have to stop. Knowledge carries real power, so abuses of knowledge can do real damage, though it may not seem concrete at first. We cannot let our hubris get in the way of the real issue: that we are continually abusing knowledge, and are therefore complicit in perpetuating colonial injustice. And it is not an embarrassment to reevaluate where we come from and make a change. If we, as a community, can forget our egos for a second and take a chance to listen, the “Ute Prayer Tree” drama would reveal itself as a misdirected focus. Then we could direct our energies towards projects that actually benefit the Indigenous community of the Pikes Peak Region.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out the fall edition of the State of the Rockies: Plains to Peak Bulletin and keep an eye out for the full 2018 State of the Rockies Report this spring. 

Read a letter to the editor responding to this piece here. 


Part of the Ego issue