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Native American History of the Indian Peaks and James Peak Wilderness Areas

Updated: Nov 9, 2022

By Yonah Cohen, IPWA Volunteer

Continental Divide Trail near Arapaho Pass by Yonah Cohen
Arapaho Pass Photo: Yonah Cohen

As you hike in the beautiful mountain wilderness, consider the peoples who have come before. When we talk about land, land is part of who we are. It’s a mixture of our blood, our past, our current, and our future. We carry our ancestors in us, and they’re around us.” Mary Lyons (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe)

The Indian Peaks and James Peak wilderness areas are a part of the traditional homelands of the Nuuchu (Ute), Hinono’ei (Arapaho) and Tsistsistas (Cheyenne) peoples, who lived, hunted, and traversed the mountains seasonally. They were massacred and forcibly removed to reservations to pave the way for settlers and the mining boom. These tribal peoples still exist today, a testament to their resistance and survival despite centuries of colonialism.

Mountain Camp - Unknown Photographer

Public lands have a dark and largely untold history beginning with the genocide and forced removal of Native Americans. It is important to acknowledge that the concept of ‘wilderness’ is problematic because it idealizes a pristine environment free of humans, denying the history of the original inhabitants who were an interconnected part of the landscape for millennia prior to colonization. Native peoples managed the landscape through sustainable game management, resource harvesting and prescribed burns that kept the ecosystem in balance. “The public lands we love today were once Indigenous lands, and that the actions taken to "conserve" them have sometimes been exclusionary, insensitive or engineered to benefit only a privileged few.” (Wilderness Society Public Lands Curriculum).

The Indian Peaks Wilderness Alliance (IPWA) acknowledges that the Indian Peaks and James Peaks Wilderness Areas are the ancestral and unceded lands of the Nuuchu (Ute), Hinono’ei (Arapaho) and Tsistsistas (Cheyenne). Further, we acknowledge that 48 contemporary tribal nations are historically tied to the lands that make up the state of Colorado.

Ute Tribal Park Guide Photo: Robert Shea

Our Native Land Acknowledgement is posted on our website. To learn more about these tribes, check out the links in the resources section below.

Why do a native land acknowledgement? To recognize the land is an expression of gratitude and appreciation to those whose ancestral lands we reside on and visit today, and as a way of honoring the Indigenous people who have been living and working on the land from time immemorial. It is important to understand the long standing history of Native Lands and our wilderness areas, and to seek to understand our place within that history. It is also worth noting that acknowledging the land is Indigenous protocol.

You may be wondering how the Indian Peaks Wilderness and its mountains got their names.

The Indian Peaks were named by botanist Ellsworth Bethel in the 1900s after the Native American tribes of the west, although sadly by that time, many of the tribes had been decimated and forcibly removed to distant reservations. The Indian Peaks include Apache Peak, Shoshoni Peak, Paiute Peak, Arikaree Peak, Kiowa Peak, Navajo Peak, Ogalalla Peak, Pawnee Peak, Niwot Ridge, Arapaho Pass and North and South Arapaho Peaks.

1914 Pack Trip with Oliver Toll and Arapaho Elders

Some of the original names of the peaks were preserved in a book by Oliver Toll titled “Arapaho Names and Trails: A Report of a 1914 Pack Trip”, which chronicled his expedition, sponsored by the newly established Colorado Mountain Club, with two Arapaho elders from the Wind River Reservation to document the stories and original places names of natural landmarks in the area.

According to the book, Arapaho Peak was called Pawnee Forts and James Peak and its adjacent mountains were called the Wolf’s Tusks. Enos Mills, considered the founder of Rocky Mountain National Park, originally proposed that the Indian Peaks should be a part of the park but the area was removed in the final plan. It would take another century before the Indian Peaks would be designated as a protected wilderness. In 1978, the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area was designated by an act of Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter. James Peak Wilderness Area would later be designated in 2002 and signed into effect by President George W. Bush.

On August 31 2021, President Biden issued a Proclamation declaring September 2021 to be National Wilderness Month. The proclamation states:

"As the original stewards of these lands, Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities have a sacred connection and deep understanding of our Nation’s wilderness areas, and the history of America’s public lands has too often involved broken promises to the Native peoples who have lived on them since time immemorial…

During National Wilderness Month, let us strengthen our connection to the American wilderness areas, support their designation and protection, and work to preserve the stories they tell, the memories they create, and the heritage they reflect for all Americans for generations to come. - Click here to read the rest of the two-page proclamation.



Wilderness Society Public Land Curriculum:

Northern Arapaho Tribal History:

Toll, Oliver. Arapaho Names and Trails: A Report of a 1914 Pack Trip. Rocky Mountain Nature Association, 1962.

USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service “Traditional Ecological Knowledge: An Important Facet of Natural Resources Conservation”:

Native Governance Center Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgement:

Wilderness Society - Why we must teach the ugly side of public lands history:


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