Photo of Chipeta (c. 1865-1880) by Mathew Benjamin Brady and Levin Corbin Handy. Image Credit: WikiCommons/Library of Congress.

By Louise Gay

Born around 1843, Chipeta (litt. “White Singing Bird”) was not a queen but the wife of Uncompahgre Ute Chief Ouray. A diplomat and a Native Americans rights advocate, she is the only known woman to ever be allowed to sit on a Ute tribal council.

Little is known of Chipeta’s youth. Oral tradition reports that she was originally from a Kiowa Apache village before being adopted by the Uncompahgre Ute, a band of the Ute tribe, after the massacre of her relatives.

Later on, Chipeta married Ouray who will become chief of the Uncompahgre band around 1860. Due to his leadership abilities and language skills, the United States recognised him as head chief of all the Utes – a position he did not hold in reality.

Chipeta often sat alongside her husband on tribal councils, whereas women were not usually allowed. She also assisted him in diplomatic negotiations with foreign delegations: from other neighbouring tribes to the US government, then in full colonial extension towards the West.

By 1861, the territory of Colorado was created in the wake of the gold rush. While thousands of white colonists were flocking, Chipeta and Ouray took part in the delegation that negotiated a treaty with the US in an attempt to protect the Utes’ hunting grounds and sacred lands.

In 1863, the Treaty of Conejos was signed and reduced their territory by half. Several other treaties will ensue in the following years with the mediationof Chipeta, sarcastically described by a reporter from the Rocky Mountain News as the “Queen of the Utes” in 1872.

The loss of their land, along with pressures from the Colorado government to force them to adopt a sedentary lifestyle and convert to Christianity, eventually heightened tensions which led to an Ute uprising in 1879, known as the Meeker Massacre.

The Uncompahgre band did not take part in the revolt, however. Chipeta and Ouray collaborated with the US officials to help releasing the hostages. The next year, they both went to the US Capitol to testify before the Congress about the uprising and to negotiate a new treaty.

After escaping a lynching on the way to Washington, Chipeta was welcomed as a delegate then partook in the hearing and negotiations. Her efforts as well as those of her husband were ultimately unsuccessful as the government proclaimed the Ute Removal Act of 1880.

Having been denied the lands formerly guaranteed by previous agreements and coerced into relocating to present-day Utah, the Utes were removed to the Uintah Indian Reservation with smaller, fruitless soils. After Ouray’s death this same year, the site was renamed in his honour.

Chipeta then continued to sit on tribal councils throughout the last forty-four years of her life and to advocate for Native Americans rights, such as asking the US government to have water brought to the Uncompahgre facilities.

She died in her eighties in August 1924, two months only after the signature of the Indian Citizenship Act which at last granted all Native Americans the US citizenship.

Recommended Reading

H. Bert Jenson, “Chipeta: Glory and Heartache”, The Outlaw Trail Journal (1992): 12-21

Peter R. Decker, “The Utes Must Go!” American Expansion and the Removal of a People (Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2004)

Susan Lyman-Whitney, Worth Their Salt: Notable but Often Unnoted Women of Utah (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1996)

Virginia McConnell Simmons, The Ute Indians of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico (Denver: University Press of Colorado, 2001).

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