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Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum

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In the heart of ancestral North America, the new Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum in Ignacio, Colorado, captures the spirit of longevity the Southern Ute Indian Tribe represents. The sense that, as one museum board member said, “We have always been here, and we’re still here.”

The 52,000-square-feet center opens to the public with a Circle of Life Worldwide Welcome on May 21-22. This marks the culmination of more than 20 years of planning to ensure that the “story of the Southern Ute people will always be told and remembered,” museum officials said.

The cultural center in southwestern Colorado will include interactive exhibits where "space, words, sounds, images and priceless artifacts bring history vividly to live," their website states. The interactive displays are also designed for children. The museum includes collections of more than 1,500 artifacts and oral histories recorded by tribal members.

There are also classes, include tanning animal hides, basket-making, painting, sculpting, storytelling, viewing films, preparing traditional foods, cooking demonstrations, and distance learning technology. A Native Garden focuses on native plants, composting, medicinal horticulture, harvest feasts, health and nutrition.

Past and present will unite in museum activities involving horses, central to the Southern Utes. In one activity, “a spring-activated, full-body interactive horse invites brave riders to experience and appreciate the Southern Ute Indians’ considerable accomplishments when it comes to horsemanship,” according to museum press packet. The mechanical horse, a life-size sorrel, is expected to be a favorite with young visitors, who can don chaps and cowboy hats for a photo taken by a camera inside the ring where the horse is installed. Parents and can purchase either a print or thumb drive of their little cowboys or cowgirls. The ring is surrounded by photos of Southern Ute tribal members bronc riding and taking part in other rodeo events.

The horses available for the kids aren’t just of the mechanical variety, explained Eleanor Frost, a museum technician, who said that “a whole lot of things are going on right now” to prepare for at least 300 people expected to come to the museum’s public opening, including live horses. A corral will host horse events, where local horsemen and women will demonstrate the crucial part horses play in the daily lives of the Southern Ute Tribe, and children will be able to pet and ride the horses.

The $35 million-plus museum’s collection includes historic photographs, baskets, ceremonial dance regalia, paintings, jewelry, belts, hair pieces, flutes, drums, weapons, stone axes, awls and other cultural objects, primarily from donations by Ute and non-Ute families in southwest Colorado.

“What makes Ute material unique is that, while other tribes were creating objects for the tourist market, most Ute Indians’ objects were made for utilitarian purposes, such as berry baskets, water jars and beaded items that were used for Bear Dance and other ceremonies,” museum officials said, noting that the Southern Utes “are noted for their intricate beadwork, and their color combinations and designs are particularly distinctive.”

Planning for the museum incorporated tribal culture related to “the natural world, the earth—its plants and the cycles of the solstice and equinox; the animal world that shares messages with mankind; the spirit world, in which all things are alive; and the human world, where we transfer knowledge,” museum officials said, adding that building materials were chosen from plants and rock that are an “integral part of the Southern Ute cultural landscape.”

In the permanent gallery, earliest Southern Ute experience is traced in the space titled Long Time Ago, where a mannequin in traditional dress shares creation stories as told by tribal elders, while the Camp Life space portrays tribal daily life in the 1800s, with a full-sized hide tipi. The Reservation Life space includes an historic recreation of a school classroom.

“Sounds of drumming and songs that typified sacred ceremonies abound in the Celebrating Traditions space, where visitors are encouraged to try their hand at musical instruments and view multi-screen videos,” planners said. “When visitors complete the tour of these exhibits, they are expected to understand that the Southern Ute Indian Tribe is moving toward the future by taking culture in hand and bringing it with them.”