Rock Circles & Prayer Trees- Lessons from the Native Americans {Colorado}

I love when one plan turns into a series of plans full of places to see. My job was taking me to Denver for a conference but I decided to come a few days early so I could go and visit some family who live in Colorado. I arrived at the Denver airport, got in my rental car, and starting driving south. My aunt lives a few hours from Denver in the foothills of the beautiful Sangre de Cristo mountains. I loved seeing the mountains and feeling that dry air fill my lungs. It was like coming back to myself a little bit.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains

I arrived at my aunts house and was happily surprised that my dad was there as well. When he heard that I was coming to Colorado he arranged to drive over from Utah so he could see me. It was a wonderful family reunion to say the least. My aunt bought her house years ago and has found great pleasure in her mountain home. What she discovered though is that this area was also home to some of the Ute Native American tribes. She told me about the day when she was contacted by a tribe member and historian regarding sites of the Native American tribes that were on her land and asking her for help in preserving them. These sites were important pieces of their history and they did not want them lost. Since then she has worked closely with them in learning about these sites and helping to preserve them.

My first morning there my aunt Claudia took me and my dad around to show us these incredible pieces of history. These sites are hundreds of years old and would be easily overlooked as they are simple examples of the people who lived here. She first pointed out an arrow carved rock that pointed east. The Native Americans marked the passage of time by the sun and charted the sky with the stars. Celebrations were held for these changes of season, expressing gratitude for the natural world and all the blessings that came from it. This rock pointing east helped mark those times of celebration but also pointed to a former lava mound where they would get rocks to use in ceremonies and healings.

stone pointing to the east and to the lava mound

Next she showed us where rocks were lined up in a large circle with a cedar tree at the top of the circle. The tree would have served as the center with hides tied to it and then stretched down the bottom were they were held in place by the rocks. This larger space would have been used in healing ceremonies with fires and hot rocks to sweat out the ailments. But it was also where the tribal elders would gather together the younger ones to pass down their stories, their knowledge, and their beliefs. It would be a rite of passage so to speak to be invited to enter the tent with the elders. This was the central point in their community. It was amazing to see the rocks still lining the outer ring of the enclosure and the mighty cedar tree still keeping watch over it.

outer ring of the central enclosure

There were also smaller enclosures around that would have been used for housing or storage. All of these smaller enclosures are surrounding the main central point. Each of these smaller enclosures had a tree in the middle where they would tie the animal skins to.

housing circle

Like the rock used to point towards the east, they also used rocks to point to water. In a small gully was another carved rock pointing towards where a natural spring was. This rock was harder to see as it sat in the shade of a tree. They believed that the great Creator made all things and provided all things. With water especially they would mark the place with a celebration of gratitude at being given such a source of life.

rock pointing to a water spring

Further up the hillside we came to a burial ground. The Native Americans believed that because we are all connected, we are all part of the world together, that everyone should be honored in death. They buried their own but they also buried their enemies. They would lay the person on the ground covered in a blanket or animal skin and then cover them with dirt. Then they would lay rocks in a line on top and place another rock at the head looking towards the east. While it is hard to see in the picture, there is a depression in the ground next to the line of rocks where they would have pulled the dirt in order to cover the body. That depression is still noticeable in the land. As far as who is buried here it could be a member of the tribe, or a settler, or a cavalryman, or a miner. No matter who they were they were honored and prayed for in death.

burial mound

This area also has many trees which are called Prayer Trees. When a new leader would be chosen, they would take a sappling tree and tie it down. The tree would continue to grow at an angle until the leader died then would be untied and left to grow straight again. A prayer would be offered for the leader that his life would be long and his works be great. Now you can see the trees with a part that juts out to the side and then straight up again and that shows the length of the leader’s life. It was a beautiful tribute to the leaders they loved and followed to have such a lasting visual of their life. There are many of these prayer trees along the hillsides, each one remembering an important figure in the community.

My aunt continues to work with the tribe members to preserve this land. She had no idea the rich history it had when she bought it but now feels it is her calling to protect what is here and help educate others about it. At some point she would like to create a education center and invite others to come and get this some glimpse into a part of history. To get to be one of the firsts in this education endeavor was such an incredible experience.

It would be easy to overlook this part of history, much like how easy it is to overlook the rocks and trees that mark that history. It is not a part of our history that gets a lot of notice or interest. But it is an important part of our history and who we are as a country. So much of the fabric of what we know came from the wisdom of the Native Americans. The more we can learn from them the better. As travelers we often learn from the people we meet with their culture and traditions, or we learn from buildings and the aesthetics they have or the items they preserve, but today I felt grateful to learn from the land itself and to read history in the rocks and the trees.

If you are interested in some other places rich in indigenous history, you may want to consider these:

The Hill of Tara – Ireland

Gila Valley Cliff Dwellings – New Mexico

Cave of Wonders – Dominican Republic

Crazy Horse Monument – South Dakota

Thanks for joining me today in learning some of the Native American history. May your tent be warm and your water be plentiful.

20 responses to “Rock Circles & Prayer Trees- Lessons from the Native Americans {Colorado}”

  1. Whenever you study the knowledge and beliefs of ancient peoples, you can’t help but think that we in the modern world have lost more knowledge than we have gained over the generations. They just knew so much more than we did – and half of the world’s “new” knowledge (nutrition, balanced diet, astronomy, the natural world, natural remedies) aren’t “new” at all – for our ancestors it was all part of daily life!

  2. How wonderful to be able to drive over to visit your Aunt and to have your Dad visiting too. It must have been so interesting for your Aunt to show you around these indigenous sites.

  3. What an interesting backyard. Sounds like your aunt is the perfect person to own this land and take care of these important indigenous artifacts. Maggie

  4. What an exceptional chapter of history to have knocking around in one’s back garden. How fantastic that you got to see this area and the rocks and markings that have survived over the years. Loving the shot of you and your dad and aunt, what a happy occasion it must have been all round. Not a bad way to balance out the stress of a work trip.

    • True enough, nothing better than using a work trip as an excuse to see some family 🙂 It really is incredible that all these things were just in her land. I’m glad that it was her to find such a surprise because she really has taken it on as her mission to protect it instead of clearing them out like others would.

  5. Your aunt is a remarkable woman for helping to preserve these important sites. I wish her the best of luck with the education center. When I visited Mesa Verde NP last fall I saw a quote that seems fitting: “We didn’t get wiped out, we didn’t move away, we’re still here, and we will still be here.” Terry Knight, Ute Mountain, Ute Elder.

    • She is amazing and I am so glad that by happenstance it was her that is working to protect them where others would have cleared them out without knowing their significance.

  6. When I visit the US I am always especially interested in the history of the Native Americans and their present day culture too. How fascinating for your aunt to discover that she has these historic treasures on her land, and how wonderful that she is working with the Native community to preserve them and hopefully teach others about them.

    I was interested though that you talk about all the beliefs in the past tense as I had understood, maybe wrongly, that these sorts of beliefs were still very central to Native American life today? We once went to a church on reservation land (Chinle near the Canyon de Chelly) where we saw the traditional beliefs woven into the Christian Roman Catholic ones.

    • It was a real surprise to her when she discovered these significant pieces of history on her land. But there couldn’t be better person for it as she is so determined on preserving and protecting it.

      The Native Americans still follow those same beliefs, but I also think they have moved with the times to a certain degree too. It is incredible to me how much of those traditional beliefs shaped the country and the people at large. How fascinating to see the traditional beliefs and the Catholic beliefs so woven together. There is something really beautiful in that idea. Thank you for your insights!

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