On this day in 1880, a Native American woman of the Ute tribe took the witness stand in the nation’s capitol.
Chipeta was the wife of a chief of the Uncompaghre Ute tribe, but she was born a Kiowa Apache. Chipeta means “white singing bird” in the Ute Shoshonean language.
The Ute had lived and hunted for generations in the Powell Park plains area in western Colorado. Friction between between the native Indians and the white settlers in Colorado was growing, especially after the 1861 Homestead Act allowing white settlers to move onto Ute land. Then gold was discovered on the Ute territory, and the US government put more pressure on the Utes to take up farming and convert to Christianity.
Then gold was discovered on the Ute territory, and the US government put more pressure on the Utes to take up farming and convert to Christianity.
When she married Ute Chief Ouray, Chipeta became his advisor and confidant. Unusually for a woman, she was admitted to the meetings of the tribal council where she sat beside her husband and served as his counselor. In 1863, Chipeta and her husband helped create the first treaty of Conejos, Colorado.
In 1880, Chipta travelled to Washington DC with her husband and other Ute chiefs. Secretary of Interior Carl Schurz had welcomed them to testify to the US House of Representatives Committee on Indian Affairs about the death of government agent Nathan Meeker and his ten employees in September 1879 — “the Meeker massacre.”
The newspapers had reported extensively on the massacre, and even before Chipeta arrived to the nation’s capitol The Washington Post announced her upcoming testimony and described her as “a fat, good-humored looking squaw.”
And so on March 19, communicating with the help of an interpreter, Chipeta took the witness stand and briefly answered just ten questions. You can read her testimony here, on the Speaking While Female Speech Bank.
Be forewarned: her words are nothing special. Most of her answers amount to “I don’t know.”
What’s remarkable is Chipeta’s elevated tribal position — and her historic role as the first Indigenous American woman who spoke to lawmakers in the nation’s capitol.
What is remarkable is Chipeta’s elevated tribal position — and her historic role as the first Indigenous American woman to give public testimony to lawmakers in the nation’s capitol.
After her husband’s death, Chipeta continued as a tribal leader. Eventually the Ute tribe was forced to leave their home in Colorado and resettle in northeastern Utah, now the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.
Chipeta is buried at the site of her former home near Montrose, Colorado.
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