The Indigenous History of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Published on September 8th, 2021

While the Grand Canyon might get all the glory, it’s far from the only fantastically sculpted river valley worth seeing — and at Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, chances are you’ll encounter far fewer crowds. Designated just before the turn of the 21st century, this, one of the newest national parks in the United States, contains some of the oldest exposed rock in not just North America but the world — and where there’s very old landscape, there’s very old, often underrepresented, history.

The Indigenous History of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Black Canyon of the Gunnison with two dragons and the Gunnison River cutting through the rock in valley, Colorado, Black Canyon of the Gunnison national park, USA.

With its steep slopes and rugged desert countryside, the lands surrounding Black Canyon of the Gunnison were not exactly hospitable for long-term living, and while Ute peoples lived throughout the southwestern lands surrounding the canyon, many of them avoided even visiting it or hunting along its rims out of superstition. It is, after all, a pretty foreboding place. Later, the Gunnison River and the canyon itself got its name from one Captain John Williams Gunnison, who led a 1853 survey expedition from St. Louis to San Francisco. He called this land “the roughest, most hilly and most cut up” he had seen, echoing the Natives who had avoided what they named “much rocks, big water.”

Still, the history of colonization changed the shape and legacy of the southwestern United States, chasing out peoples who had called these lands home — and stewarded them — for centuries. The Ute people were a vast and storied civilization whose ancestral lands spread throughout present-day Utah and and Colorado, and who went on hunting expeditions as far as Wyoming, Oklahoma, Arizona and California. There were a dozen historic bands of Ute people, whose customs and lifestyles varied and were often heavily influenced by neighboring people. Ute Indians tended to live in extended family groups of between 20 and 100 people, and used tools like arrows, spears, and netting to capture buffalo, antelope, elk, deer, bear, rabbit, sage hens and beavers. Some also cultivated corn and tobacco, and the peoples also had intricate and beautiful religious and social rituals.

Today, in the wake of colonization, very few Ute people remain, most of whom live in one of three reservations in Utah, Colorado, and part of New Mexico.

Paying Respect to the Land

Even in a place as dramatic and, frankly, difficult as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a thriving human history is in place — one that reaches well beyond the recall of Eurocentric contemporary history. Acknowledging the stewardship and sovereignty of the Indigenous peoples who dwelled in this land before European settlers ever arrived is one of the first steps toward fully understanding the context of visiting such an important and precious place.

No matter where you are in the United States — and in many other places across the globe, too — you can check to see whose ancestral lands you’re standing on at Native Land. Educating yourself about the cultures and customs of the people who cared for these places long before us is also an important way to pay respect to their legacy and the landscape itself.

Finally, we always encourage campers to pay close attention to Leave No Trace principles, such as packing out all the garbage you pack in and camping only in dedicated campsites that have already been used (so as to avoid harming more local flora). In this way, we can ensure that Black Canyon of the Gunnison — and all the other contemporary wildernesses we love so much — are ready for our children to visit, and our children’s children after them.

What do you think?

How much can you make renting your RV?

See How Much You Can Make

How much can you make renting your RV?

See How Much You Can Make

Similar Articles

The Indigenous History of Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Tucked along the Cuyahoga River almost smack-dab in between Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park enjoys the distinction of…

Read More

The Indigenous History of Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake National Park is a place of extremes: this, the deepest lake in the United States (and one of…

Read More

The Indigenous History of Congaree National Park

The largest intact copse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States, Congaree National Park is a landscape…

Read More

The Indigenous History of Channel Islands National Park

It’s a little counterintuitive: one of the most stunning untouched natural wonderlands left in the United States exists right off…

Read More

The Indigenous History of Carlsbad Caverns National Park

From the stunning stalactites and stalagmites that characterize this hidden underground wonderland to the flowering cacti, rocky canyons, and gigantic…

Read More

The Indigenous History of Capitol Reef National Park

Not every desert landscape is lucky enough to boast both endless red rock geological formations over a vast and desolate-looking…

Read More