Saving pieces of history

Program aims to protect wickiups, Native American structures

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— The U.S. Forest Service's Heritage Program is working to find, document and protect some wickiups, teepee-like shelters that are among the oldest structures in this part of the Rocky Mountains .

Wickiups are made mostly of branches and sticks and there are only a few still standing.

The Heritage Program launched a project to save wickiups and other Native American structures before time destroys them.

"These are all made of wood and sticks, so they are real susceptible to (weather), fire and people," said Joanne Sanfilippo, an archeologist for the Forest Service.

Other structures include tree platforms used for hunting and food storage and eagle traps. Ute and Arapaho Native Americans probably built the structures around 1750. One wickiup near Craig is suspected to have been built in the 1400s, Sanfilippo said.

Last summer a crew of about 15 people, mostly volunteers, visited four wickiups and one tree platform in the Routt and Medicine Bow national forests to record information and determine how to protect the sites. Sanfilippo said about 15 sites exist in the two forests, all of which will be visited by a crew.

She admitted the structures would be difficult to protect. They are made of sticks, which inevitably become weathered. Plus, the untrained eye is unlikely to recognize the value of the structures, which makes them more susceptible to damage.

"In 100 years, they might all be gone," Sanfilippo said.

The information gathered at the sites is the greatest asset of the project since that information will outlast the structures.

The crew recorded architectural information and collected a wood core sample from each structure.

The samples will be sent to the University of Arizona for scientists to date. When complete, all the information will be sent to the Colorado State Historic Preservation Office and kept in a database there.

"These are unique types of structures that represent a small period in time," said Todd McMahon, staff archeologist from the State Historic Preservation Office.

Wickiups, for example, were built by using whatever resources were at the site of the structure, he said.

It was possibly the Western influence of the horse that allowed Native Americans to modify wickiups into teepees. The horse enabled them to carry teepee skins and poles wherever they went, Sanfilippo added.

College professors and students find this type of information essential when studying the Native American culture, McMahon said.

"It's important to understand our roots," he added.

Even though most Americans don't have a blood tie to Native Americans, everyone has a connection to a tribal society somewhere, he explained.

"It all adds to our greater understanding of humankind through history," McMahon said.

A crew will visit and document more local prehistoric sites next summer.

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