Land of Wee Noonts:  Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park sits on lands historically sacred to the Hopi and Anasazi People and is sacred to the Ute (Nuu-agha-tuvu-pu) and Southern Paiute Peoples. Other tribes who passed through the area include Hope, Navajo and Zuni.


Ancestors of the Hopi, Pueblo of Zuni Nations, (known to these tribes as Hisotsinom: People of Long Ago) and Paiute People (known to Paiutes as the Wee Noonts: People Who Lived the Old Ways) around 500 CE, developed communities as they moved from nomadic food foraging to farming of corn, beans and squash. They stored their food in granary jars to sustain themselves beyond the farming season. They dwelled in pit houses, occupied seasonally. Between 300 and 1300 CE, they created pictographs and petroglyphs on the steep canyon walls, which are shown in the painting in the upper right. Humans and animals (bighorn sheep) are carved into the walls; figures are depicted with intricate headdresses, jewelry and clothing. Maps and journeys, symbols of the ancestral clan and calendars are also included in the carvings. In the early 1800s, as European settlers came, they drove off the Native population from the area.


The area was more formally explored in 1872 by European settlers; shown in the painting is Almon Thompson, a surveyor who charted the land. Eventually, Latter-Day Saint Mormons found their way to the area and settled a town called Fruita, indicated in the painting by both the Fruita one room schoolhouse from 1896 and a fruit orchard. Fruit trees were planted here and can still be seen in Fruita today. The European settler population in those early years never exceeded 10 families.


Capitol Reef also was the site of Butch Cassidy’s hideaway. In the painting, he is shown next to a burnt-out fireplace that can still be seen in off-road exploring. Another feature of the Park is that uranium mining took place here, so that signs still exist to “keep away”, since the area has some hot spots of radiation. (this appears in the center of the painting.

Capitol Reef National Monument was established in 1937, while families still lived in Fruita. A National Park was named in 1971.


Geographically unique to the Park is the Waterpocket Fold, formed by 100 million years of rock formation. The fold was created as one land section slid under another, pushing up a fold or wrinkle in the landscape. A chart depicting this process is included in the painting. The Waterpocket Fold can be seen for over 100 miles, and makes for unusual geographic forms, such as steep canyons, carved out arches, and gorges. Capitol Reef Park is also known for its pristine night skies.


Threats to the park include loss of endangered species, such as the Mexican Spotted Owl and the Sego Lily, both shown in the painting. There are 122 non-native invasive species of plants that threaten native habitats. Climate change has brought higher temperatures, lower precipitation, more severe droughts, erosion and more floods. At times, reduced visibility from man-made haze threatens visitors’ health. Widespread invasive grasses present a problem for other species of plants. The Fremont River, which runs through the Park, has elevated levels of mercury, caused by airborne dispersal; this threatens various species of fish and animals, and can be dangerous to humans as the mercury moves down the food chain. Thankfully, this national park is more isolated than most, and has the least impact from its visitors.


Today, thirty-two Native tribes have an on-going association with Capitol Reef National Park for historical and current traditional uses. In 2011, with support from the Colorado Plateau Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit, key relationships were developed between the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, the NPS, and other academic institutions and non-profit organizations (Utah State University and Round River Conservation Studies.) These groups collaborated on valuable research concerning the Koosharem Band of the Paiute Tribe’s strong ancestral ties to Capitol Reef National Park and surrounding lands. Round River has worked extensively with the Utah Navajo for several years documenting their historic and present day values of the San Juan County region, but have not had the opportunity to document similar traditional values and historic sites outside of the San Juan County boundary. Additional research is taking place cooperatively between universities and Native tribes in the area to further an understanding of Native needs and traditions in the area, and to enhance tribal involvement in management of the Park and its resources.