Culturally Modified Trees on the Rio Grande National Forest

By: Elena Jimenez 

The Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF), which encompasses 1.82 million acres of the San Luis Valley and surrounding mountains in southern Colorado, has a long and unique history with evidence of human occupation dating as far back as 11,000 BCE. As a heritage intern for the Rio Grande National Forest, I have the opportunity to study the remarkable variety of prehistoric and historic archaeological sites associated with the various cultures in the Valley.

One common type of archaeological feature found in the area are culturally modified trees (CMT). The CMTs in the Rio Grande National Forest tend to come in two forms: peeled trees and arborglyphs. Peeled trees, mainly Ponderosa Pine, have portions of their exterior bark removed to access the cambium along with other substances like pitch and sap for food, medicine, and adhesive. Peeling also provides access to softer wood to make useful items, such as cradle boards and saddles. These trees are mainly associated with the Ute and Jicarilla Apache, although they are not exclusive to these groups. Arborglyphs are carvings, usually on aspen trees, that produce a visible image on the surface of the tree. Arborglyphs in the Rio Grande National Forest are associated with the Hispano and Basque sheepherders who have occupied the area since the mid-1800s.

Recently there has been an increasing interest in the "Bent Tree" phenomenon. This phenomenon refers to trees whose trunks are bent over. Interested observers refer to these trees as "Ute Prayer Trees," "Spirit Trees," "Burial Trees," or "Vortex Trees," and offer theories on why they are shaped the way they are and who might have done it.  Many observers have pushed for the trees to be recognized as "living artifacts," even though there is no specific evidence that these trees were culturally modified or that they are associated with a particular culture in the area. Many naturally occurring factors have been shown to cause this type of deformity, including disease, parasites, snow load, damage from animals, etc.

The Colorado Council of Professional Archaeologists is developing a statement addressing the phenomenon, stating in support of the three Ute Tribes, that professional cultural resource managers and scientists oppose the proposal to qualify "Bent Trees" as "living artifacts." The representatives of the three Ute Tribes adamantly state that this was not an ancestral practice and are releasing their own statement to that effect. The "Bent trees" are relatively young and their growth date is well after the removal of the Ute from the area. However, this has not deterred the "Bent Tree" advocates. The Ute tribes have found it deeply concerning that unsanctioned tribal members and people outside of their culture are designating these trees as being culturally associated with the Ute, ignoring the tribes' statements.  The cultural appropriation and/or cultural misrepresentation of a cultural group's history is especially disturbing when the proponents of these claims are profiting at the expense of the Ute tribes and an accurate representation of their cultural beliefs.

At a time in which programs such as Ancient Aliens on the History Channel have captured the popular imagination, there seems to be a push in archaeology to make things more "mysterious", "interesting," and/or "sexy" at any expense, regardless of the data.  We must remember that one person's opinion does not establish a cultural fact. For too long a time archaeological history was interpreted solely by Euro-Americans regardless of the living culture associated with it. It is time we let people tell their own history.

The Rio Grande National Forest Heritage programs promote better public understanding of the cultural history of the forest, not only by studying the archaeological sites, but also by communicating with the living members of a culture. Presently we are planning field trips with Southern Ute STEM students to visit culturally modified trees and have also begun to document the oral histories of Hispanic sheepherders in Conejos County to better understand their historical movements and the patterns of sites associated with sheepherding, as well as help preserve their cultural history in their own words. This inclusion of cultural members telling the history of their own culture and practices will expand public understanding to the benefit of those communities and also the country as a whole.

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