GIVING CHIPETA HER DUE
My first biography of the Colorado Ute Indian woman, Chipeta (1843-1924), grew out of a desire to know the woman I found “standing by her man.” That is how she seemed to be portrayed in Colorado history books and biographies of her husand, Chief Ouray. Researching a nineteenth century Native American woman was a challenge but the journey was worthwhile. Eight years later Chipeta: Queen of the Utes was released by Western Reflections Publishing.
I thought Chipeta’s story was so important that I followed with a second biography for younger readers. Chipeta: Ute Peacemaker was published in 2008 by Filter Press.
To discover Chipeta the woman, I dug into Indian Agent records in the National Archives, oral histories collected under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), unpublished manuscripts and old newspapers. What emerged was a picture of a strong intelligent partner who became Ouray’s most trusted advisor. They were a political team.
Ouray was appointed by the United States government to be Head Chief of all the Ute bands in Colorado. He was not chosen by the Ute people. Many Ute warriors and chiefs hated him and a few attempted to kill him. Chipeta became Ouray’s eyes and ears, welcomed in camps where he could not go. She visited among the women and learned what their men thought about important issues. But she was more than a gatherer of intellengence; she formed opions and expressed them directly to Ouray.
The most telling example of her influence occurred after the 1879 Meeker Massacre. A group of Northern Utes killed their Indian Agent and employees of the agency–all white men. They also took white women and children as hostages. The white residents of Colorado were outraged and began to arm themselves for war. The Utes responsible for the massacre asked Ouray to gather warriors and join them in a last stand against the white people who had invaded traditional Ute lands.
Ouray was ill with liver disease. His long efforts to maintain peace had been undone by the massacre. Dying honorably in battle appealed to him. Through a long night, Chipeta reasoned and pleaded until he sent out an order for all fighting to cease. Chipeta’s influence prevented a calamity that would have claimed hundreds of lives. After Ouray’s death she chose to go with their people to a reservation in Utah. She was recognized as a wise woman by the Utes and by many people of Colorado.