Land of the Blue Sky People

Bison at Medano-Zapata Ranch against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristos: Photo courtesy Mallory Olenius

Bison at Medano-Zapata Ranch against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristos: Photo courtesy Mallory Olenius

The Utes were called the “Blue Sky People” by visiting tribesmen from more eastern plains probably due to the clarity and blueness of the sky.

Interwoven with the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area’s natural environment is a very long and rich human history. Prehistoric occupation began at the end of the last Ice Age over 11,000 years ago. The Utes, the oldest continuous residents of what is now Colorado, arrived in the Sangre de Cristo region as early as 1300 A.D. and their occupation of the valley spans the late prehistoric and early historic time periods.

Seasonal Hunting Grounds

For prehistoric and Native American cultures, the SdCNHA was a seasonal hunting ground providing abundant water and wildlife. Paleoindian hunters, as well as later Archaic hunter gathers, and the Utes congregated in the wetland areas. Archeological finds include projectile points, pottery shards and grinding stones. These findings suggest that families camped in the area seasonally.

Bison and mammoth lived here!

Around 11,200 years ago, the earliest known inhabitants, the nomadic hunters and gatherers of the Clovis Complex, were drawn to the Sangre de Cristo region’s abundance of big game animals such as bison and mammoth.

Another group of nomadic hunters, the Folsom Complex, also focused on hunting bison in the Sangre de Cristo region and persisted in the Valley for about 700 years until about 10,200 years ago — the extinction of the Bison antiquus ended their Valley hunting days. Fluted Folsom projectile points have been found in prehistoric campsites within the heritage area. Archeological findings indicate people of the Archaic Tradition (7,500 – 1,500 years ago) hunted big game and smaller animals and also gathered plants.

Bison at Medano-Zapata Ranch against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristos:San Luis Lakes and Sangre de Cristos near the Great Sand Dunes: Photo courtesy Cliff Hare

San Luis Lakes and Sangre de Cristos near the Great Sand Dunes: Photo courtesy Cliff Hare

Native peoples also came to the Valley in search of turquoise, a prized mineral. The King Mine (Conejos County) may be the oldest turquoise mine worked by prehistoric people of North America.

Following the Archaic Tradition, the SdCNHA became an important hunting ground for a number of tribes. By 1400 AD, Native American tribes from throughout the region used the San Luis Valley. Apache and Navajo came from the north, Pueblo (Tiwa and Tewa) people from the south; Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho traversed the eastern plains; and the Ute people came from the west. From the 1600s to the mid-1800s, it was the Ute Indians that laid claim to the valley in search of game and plants.

Similar to the prehistoric cultures, neither the Utes nor other tribes established permanent settlements in the valley. For the Native American tribes, the Sangre de Cristo region was valued as a seasonal hunting ground where bands of tribes would migrate once the snow melted off the high mountain passes.

Legends of sipapu in lake near the Sand Dunes

Apart from its abundance of fowl and game, the landscape of the SdCNHA carries special significance for various Native American tribes. Select landscape features have long been revered as sacred. For example, the Tewa Pueblo tell stories about the first human beings emerging from the underworld through a hole, a sipapu, in a lake near the Sand Dunes. Mount Blanca, or Sierra Blanca, figures in several Indian legends. For the Navajo, Mount Blanca or Sisnaajini is the sacred mountain that marks the eastern boundary of their world.

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