Ute Indian Museum

The redesigned Ute Indian Museum “soft opening” is in February. (Photo by Michael Lawton/Special to The Watch)

If you can’t wait to see the completed, redesigned and expanded Ute Indian Museum, you aren’t the only one.

Museum Director CJ Brafford can’t contain her excitement.

The expansion is taking the museum from 4,650 to 8,500 square feet.  The new Ute Indian Museum — located at 17253 Chipeta Road, in Montrose — has virtually swallowed up the old museum. It is coming together right on schedule, though clearly not fast enough for its director.

Smiling brightly on a frigid winter day, Brafford escorted visitors around her new digs and showed where her office will be; the library, with its archives and research materials; the “bones” of the expanded gift shop; and a large, multi-purpose room that opens onto an outside patio, to bring the natural world in.

Like a proud mother, Brafford pointed to special touches she’s immensely proud of having accomplished. Bringing the Ute colors (including blue, magenta, and shades of yellow and gold) into the space brightens it in a whole new way, said Brafford, director of the Ute Museum since 1996. “It’s going to be a museum to be proud of, even more so than it was before.” 

The reconstructed museum is almost unrecognizable from the way it used to look. It’s not only larger by about 50 percent, but has also been totally redesigned in partnership with three Ute tribes: the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe (both based in Colorado), and the Northern Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation (in Utah). Close collaboration with the tribes, which took place through formal consultations and meetings, resulted in a series of guiding statements for the new museum.

In essence, Brafford said, the tribes want to convey to visitors that they have a spectacular history, a continuing presence here, and a future. It is a story being regally told through brilliant colors and immersion in the tribal culture (the message, Brafford said, is “We are still here, our culture is still alive”). Symbolic of the tribes’ paths through history, from their beginnings until now, are stones plastered into the flooring that leads through the exhibit area.

The Utes venerate nature, and the museum reflects this literally, via large glass walls and ready access to the outside. You feel it the moment you step inside: Curved windows lining the museum’s entrance reflect the proximity of the San Juan Mountains, with a graphic mural of the mountains sweeping around the window entry wall of the museum.

The new museum employs curved surfaces because that’s what the Utes do in their own buildings; the curves are perhaps the biggest visual and structural difference visitors will see.  The original, older, square-shaped adobe museum home has been devoured within the new structure. The older building is preserved as the “guts” of the new structure, albeit cleverly hidden from sight within the walls of the expanded new design.

To see the total transformation you, like Brafford, will have to wait just a bit longer.

The official Grand Opening is June 2017, but the museum is hoping to have a “soft opening” in February, along with its gift shop, museum offices and archives, and the large multi-purpose room for community events.

The collaboration on the “new” museum has been a partnership between History Colorado (the state’s historical society, which offers the public access to cultural and heritage state resources) and the three Ute tribes. In addition to the design of the facility, exhibits dating back 60 years are all being completely re-done.

Susan Beyda, corporate and foundation giving manager of History Colorado —which supports tourism, historic preservation and research related to Colorado’s past –– has worked closely on the renewal from the start. Together with political and community leaders, Beyda explained, History Colorado pushed for the funds needed to renew the museum, which has been a fixture in Montrose since it was originally constructed in 1956.

The Montrose Ute Indian Museum is one of few, and possibly the only, state-owned museums dedicated to a single indigenous group: the Ute people. The museum was originally established on land formerly occupied by the Chief of the Ute tribe, Chief Ouray and his wife, Chipeta. Try as its founders did, the original museum did not accurately incorporate the colors and lifestyles of the Utes.  

Brafford, herself a Native American (although not a Ute), has been determined over the years to honor her fellow natives by bringing the museum truly into the realm of the Utes, insisting on collaboration with the Ute tribes not only in the renewal of the museum’s building, but also in proposed exhibits. 

“I like to think of the items in the exhibits not as  ‘artifacts’,” Brafford said, “but ‘belongings.’

Some of the original belongings from earlier exhibits will be used in the new space; a select few will be returned to their owners from the museum’s archives.

Brafford wants the new museum to show visitors the path the Utes have taken. To this end, exhibits will start museum-goers down a stone path paved into the museum floor, symbolically beginning in Montrose and then guiding them through history in exhibit after exhibit designed to reveal who the Ute were, and how they exist in today’s world. Venturing farther through the museum’s exhibit halls, visitors will move through dynamic areas representing the Ute’s presence at Pikes Peak, at Rocky Mountain Park, in the Glenwood Springs area, in the San Luis Valley, in Meeker, and from there to an area called Away from Home, which ends in a space focused on how the three Ute tribes live today.  

A History Colorado brochure describes the exhibits:

“Montrose: Visitors begin their journey with an orientation to the Ute homeland, meeting 7 bands, 3 tribes and 1 people;

“San Luis Valley, Rocky Mountain National Park and Garden of the Gods: Visitors explore seasonal rounds, trade and traditional homes by visiting locations around the state;

“Invasion:  This is the setting for the conflict at Milk Creek and treaties that forced the Utes from their traditional lands;

“Away from Home: Visitors shadow the Ute leaders’ travels across Colorado and the U.S. to ensure the tribe’s survival, and follow the difficult travels of youth to boarding schools. 

“Northern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Ute: The journey concludes in today’s Ute communities, with stories of cultural survival, political self-determination, economic opportunity, and the celebration of the Bear Dance.” 

The interpretative writing in past exhibits will be replaced with new and more relevant information, Brafford said. The director wants the museum to be rich in discovery not only for visitors but for tribe members themselves.

As Ernest House, Jr., head of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, puts it in a History Colorado publication: “As Colorado’s oldest and most continuous residents, the Nuche (Ute) people are woven into the fabric of Colorado’s history.

Today, their history, culture, and language are exemplified in the Ute Indian Museum and across our state. In collaboration with all three Ute Tribes, this new museum expansion will allow visitors and students to gain a better understanding and deeper knowledge of these People of the Shining Mountains that will span future generations.”

Ever since the State of Colorado approved funds to renovate the museum building, in 2013, the Utes have had a voice at the table; for Brafford, this is the defining feature of the new museum.

She is particularly proud that the tribes have had such a say in the museum’s design, particularly its emphasis on a circular theme and tribal colors.

Origins of the museum

The Ute Museum property includes part of the pastureland once homesteaded by Chief Ouray and his wife, Chipeta, beginning in 1875. 

The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) established a memorial at the site in 1924, building a concrete tipi over Chipeta Spring. The concrete tipi still stands.

Chipeta’s body was relocated from the reservation in Utah to her ancestral site in 1925 (the procession is reported to have been a mile long.) Her brother, Chief John McCook, is buried next to her.

In 1947, the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) commissioned landscape architect Saco Rienk DeBoer and Smith and Hegner Architects to design a museum and grounds. The museum originally opened to the public in 1956.

The new design

The museum’s expansion was designed by Grand Junction architect Daniel A. Gartner of Chamberlin Architects. The contractor, also from Grand Junction, is PNCI Construction, Inc. Design firm EDX Seattle has been working directly with History Colorado on the exhibit designs.

From Chipeta Road, visitors can watch the new exterior take shape; a large, welcoming timber structure will soon be in front of the building, evocative of the Ute traditional wikiup. According to Brafford, there will also be five flagpoles outside the museum, flying the three Ute tribal flags and the State of Colorado and U.S. flags.

Funding the new building

The major portion of the funds necessary to achieve this stunning museum — $3,300,000 — have come from the State of Colorado, which voted to approve funds to restore it in 2013. The state has contributed $2,400,000 to renovate the museum building; other supplemental funding, in the amount of $738,000, includes several grants and donations from citizens. Private funds in the amount of $162,000, to be used for technology, have also been secured. The museum will implement a statewide, informal learning collaboration focused on Ute tradition and contemporary STEM knowledge to serve about 75,000 learners through local history museums and educational networks.

Still to be raised is $238,000 from a capital campaign, to be used for exhibits. Beyda says members of the community may make a contribution to the museum through a “naming” campaign for the coming exhibits. (To donate and have your family name honored as a donor to the museum exhibit fund, call History Colorado at 303-866-4477)

Finishing touches

Chamberlin Architects has completed its work; now it is up to the design firm EDX Seattle, in concert with History Colorado, to organize the exhibit areas according to staff and tribal plans.

It is expected the museum’s soft opening will primarily involve moving the staff into offices and setting up the archives and the gift shop; it will take additional time for the exhibits to be up and running and for the museum’s educational offerings to be planned.

One thing is sure: The facility, which promises to be magnificent, will represent a total renaissance for the Ute Indian museum.