HUERFANO — When you see a crooked or twisted tree in Southern Colorado, it might not be a freak of nature but a Ute Prayer Tree and it might be hundreds of years old. John Wesley Anderson gave a presentation about Ute Prayer Trees at Francisco Crossing in La Veta last week. Anderson, a retired El Paso County Sheriff, was doing research for a book about El Paso’s first county sheriff when he learned that these unusual trees were designed by Ute Indians and he became fascinated by them. He is a historian, teacher and an author of three books. The Ute Indians were very skillful at culturally modifying these trees and there are five categories or types of them. The trail marking tree was to show the way these trees have a distinctive 30-degree bend before extending upward. They point the way to some trail or landmark. Medicine trees were stripped by the medicine man who cut the bark in a way that would not harm the tree. The bark was used for food as it is very nutritious and was also used for making tea and medicine. The burial tree can be identified by its 90-degree bend. This prayer tree honors the passing of a tribal leader or important warrior and marks their passage into the next world. A story tree conveys a message such as the locatiion of water or a good place to camp. Messages were carved into the bark. The Utes usually used an aspen tree since it has a short life span and the
message was not meant to last long. A prophecy tree is thought to foretell a future event. Sometimes two trees were found growing intertwined. These trees were more complex and took a lot of planning. To shape the trees, the Utes tied them in the way they wanted them to grow using ropes made from yucca fiber. They would return every year or two to add another rope until they had four. The Utes believed that everything living has a spirit, and before they would work with a tree, they would ask the Great Spirit and the tree for permission. They strived to live in harmony with nature and respected all forms of life. These trees can been seen throughout Southern Colorado. The day of his talk, Anderson observed a prayer tree on route 12 by the Yellow Pine Ranch. in the way they wanted them to grow.