Glenwood Springs "Sweats" Attempt to Revive Ute Indian Culture

Sep 26, 2013

Kenny Frost is a spiritual leader for the Ute Indian Tribe. Each month he leads a group of people, some of whom are Native Americans, through a traditional sweat at the vapor caves in Glenwood Springs.
Kenny Frost is a spiritual leader for the Ute Indian Tribe. Each month he leads a group of people, some of whom are Native Americans, through a traditional sweat at the vapor caves in Glenwood Springs.
Credit Marci Krivonen

A member of the Ute Indian Tribe is holding traditional sweats in Glenwood Springs in an effort to keep his culture alive. Each month, Kenny Frost takes a small group into the depths of a cave warmed by natural hot springs. The cave is where his ancestors came to heal. And, he hopes his sweats bring back to life a culture that’s losing its traditions quickly. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

Kenny Frost is in swim trunks and surrounded by about 20 others who are equally minimally dressed. He’s tucked into the corner of a dimly lit, stone cave, and with his drum, he leads the group in prayer songs.

Frost is a spiritual leader for the Ute Indian Tribe. Every month he travels from Durango to perform this ceremony. It’s held in a set of underground adjoining rock chambers, where temperatures can reach 112 degrees. Hot springs provide the heat and the business upstairs, Yampah Spa, maintains the caves.

Frost compares the caves to a traditional sweat lodge.

"But, when we go into a sweat lodge, which is covered with hides and wood material, we say that we’re inside the womb of mother earth, here in the cave, we’re inside mother earth," he says.

Before the 2-hour ceremony starts, Frost prepares the participants by going over the details.

"In a sweat, there are four rounds. The first round, you’re fresh...Right, you guys have been drinking lots of water, right?," he says as he looks around the crowd.

He warns newcomers that it gets uncomfortable.

"What our elders used to say long ago, and they’re gone now today, is tough it out, if it gets hard, stay in there, don’t take the easy route and and walk out."

The sweats are essentially prayer times, where Frost believes ancient spirits are drawn into the caves to help people heal. Becky McBain is here after several visits to the doctor.

"I have had five back surgeries and have had to learn to walk again, so I came for the healing aspect of it," she says.

Before the group heads to the caves, Frost removes an eagle feather from a leather case and picks up a bound bunch of sage.

"What I’m going to do is, we’ve got some sage, and we’re going to fan you off and get the negativity off you and that’ll be the start."

The practice is called smudging. Frost finishes and the group is ready. He leads them downstairs and the sweat gets underway.

Frost says part of the reason he holds these ceremonies is to help keep the Ute culture alive in the Roaring Fork Valley. For 800 years, this area was home for the Utes. Near the bottom of the ski gondola in Aspen was likely a Ute summer camp. And, the caves and hot springs in Glenwood Springs were sacred. Frost says his great, great grandfather held sweats in the caves.

"This was the heart of Ute country because of the sacred sites that are here, our Ute ancestors came here to perform ceremonies," Frost says.

In late 19th century, the government forced the Utes from Western Colorado to reservations in Utah and Southwest Colorado. In the 1990’s, Colorado’s three Ute tribes gathered in Glenwood Springs for the first time in over a century. Frost took them to the caves.

"For a lot of the Ute people, they didn’t realize this was here and this was something our ancestors have utilized for thousands of years and it was a reconnection with the sacred site and the caves," he says.

The caves are now cared for by staff at Yampah Spa. Owner Patsy Steele says she opens up the caves for sweats because she feels it’s her way of giving back.

"I feel that from the very depths of my heart. No one left willingly, even though you and I weren’t around and we had nothing to do with it, but we’re here now," she says.

According to Ute tribal member Kenny Frost, the caves are one of many sacred sites in the Roaring Fork Valley.