Ute Cultural Center and Museum preserves and showcases Ute culture,
one box at a time
take part in an exhibit about rock art, learning about the
multiple perspectives on Ute prehistory, and the meaning of
the symbols. (photo courtesy Southern Ute Museum)
Packed full with cultural motifs in its architecture, with exhibits
crafted from tribal member-owned itemsoccasionally found packed
up in garagesand a commitment to education, the Southern
Ute Cultural Center and Museum is in the final stages of reinventing
itself to tell the story of its community in its own manner.
Museum Director Linda Baker, a Southern Ute tribal member, says
the center, which first opened its doors in 1971, was once a nonprofit
institution with items on loan from across the nation, including
the National Museum of the American Indian. "The tribe took the
museum over in May 2016," Baker says. After returning all the loaned
artifacts, "we started from scratch, and brought out our tribally-owned
collections." However, being a community-centered museum doesn't
mean an amateur operation: Baker, a seasoned museum consultant,
says that one of her tasks has been to ensure a professionally-managed
the Welcome Gallery and see why the Southern
Ute community chose to display its own items. In one display
case, 11 of the 12 items have never before been seen in public.
There are also four cases showcasing the "Ute Seasons"each
case representing one season.
The Welcome Gallery also is the scene of the cultural center's
most striking architectural feature: a timber, steel and glass structure
soaring 60 feet into the air in an inverted cone reminiscent of
a basketor a Ute woman's shawl. Supported by huge, straight
tree trunks, the breathtaking space is capped with a medicine wheel.
Baker says that the frosted glass walls allow dappled light to shine
through; oftentimes, she can see the gentle shadows of nearby trees
creating a light play as they dance with the breeze.
The permanent gallery continues the narrative of Colorado's
longest continuous residents using photographic curtains, life-size
replicas, video, audio, and touchscreens to keep visitors engaged.
A tipi measuring 14 feet in diameter shows how the Numi Nuuchiyu,
or Ute People, lived in pre-contact and early contact times. The
tribe's radio station, KSUT, has its own display to tell the history
of the 40-year-old media outlet. Also on display is a Bear
Dance tribute, featuring shawls, gauntlets and the growler,
or rasp. There's also a Bear Dance corral outside the museum.
Baker notes that the exhibit "Mountain Lion!" currently on display
in the temporary gallery through September is especially timely
due to the increased interactions between humans and the big cats.
Another example of community-contributed items can be seen in
the veteran's exhibit, which pays homage to the Ute tradition of
protecting their homeland through serving in the military. "There's
a diver's helmet there," says Baker. Along with a diving knife,
the display comes from a tribal member who retired after a 30-year
While the museum is open to all, the tribe's cultural department,
now housed at the facility, is dedicated to educating the community
about its culture and history. The move was part of Southern Ute's
plan to transition the cultural center and museum to direct tribal
Baker says that the cultural center's shift toward more cultural
education is reaping results, Baker says, noting that more young
people are coming in on their own to experience their culture and
history. "We have been seeing young kids coming from as far as an
hour away," she says. "One junior high school boy came in with his
skateboardhe spent all morning inside looking at the exhibits."
In fact, Baker says that it's common for tribal member youth to
spend many hours inside the museum.
The youth also feel welcomed by the staff. "We've got a great
staff here, they are very friendly," Baker says. "They do everything
for them but feed thembecause no food or drinks are allowed