Lawsuit nets $43M for Ute Mountain Utes

A recent $1 billion settlement between the federal government and 41 Native American tribes could mean an opportunity for one Southwest Colorado tribe to secure a more financially stable future, a Durango-area business expert said.

The settlement, which resolves numerous lawsuits alleging mismanagement of tribal money and trust lands, gives the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe near Towaoc nearly $42.6 million, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s a fairly large amount of money,” said Joe Keck, who has worked with both the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes on economic development and is director of the Small Business Development Center of Southwest Colorado at Fort Lewis College. “It seems like it could be a real opportunity for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, especially if they gear it toward an overall economic-development strategy.”

Calls to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe seeking information on management of the money were not returned Monday. Gary Hayes, chairman of Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, also did not respond to calls last week and on Monday requesting information.

Keck said the Ute Mountain Ute leaders already have shown foresight planning for the tribe’s future. The tribe’s successful farm-and-ranch enterprise, which includes more than 7,000 acres of irrigated farmland, is a “great accomplishment,” he said.

The enterprise, he added, is largely “unheard of in Indian country,” and it is making the tribe more agriculturally self-sustaining.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe wasn’t endowed a century ago with the same kind of resource-rich reservation lands the Southern Ute Indian Tribe was, Keck said.

The Ute Mountain Ute lands have far fewer fossil fuel and water resources than their Southern Ute sister tribe’s lands. The Southern Ute reservation, near Ignacio, has multiple river systems and an abundant supply of oil and natural-gas resources.

Keck said the latest cash infusion could be more than a one-time boost for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. It could be an opportunity to “develop a self-sufficiency plan for the tribe” that makes the money work for the tribe long-term. Investing the money and leaving the principle untouched will allow the cash from the settlement to “grow over time” and create ongoing revenue for government and members to use, he said.

“It really provides an opportunity for the tribe to set up a permanent fund (for tribal government operations) and a growth fund (for business enterprises),” Keck said.

It’s a chance to build wealth, he said, adding that the investment successes of the Southern Utes “are a great example of what can be done.”

The billion-dollar federal settlement was announced earlier this month by the U.S. Justice Department and the Department of the Interior, which manages more than 100,000 leases on tribal trust lands and about 2,500 tribal trust accounts for more than 250 federally recognized tribes.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the agreements “fairly and honorably resolve historical grievances over the accounting and management of tribal trust funds, trust lands and other non-monetary trust resources, that, for far too long, have been a source of conflict between Indian tribes and the United States.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he hoped ending the dispute would help government relations with tribes “move beyond distrust and antagonism.”

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe was not named in the federal settlement. Keck said that’s likely because decades ago, the tribe took on a trail-blazing role fighting for control and management of its land and natural resources.

“The Southern Utes were working with companies 20 years ago to make sure they were getting their fair share for leases and resources, and to ensure the money was actually going to the tribe,” Keck said. “They sort of led the way.”

Other tribes around the nation, including the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, let the government manage their trust lands and resources during the early years. But the success of the Southern Utes in managing their resources, coupled with flat royalty contracts negotiated between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the discovery of compliance problems in the 1980s, when some energy producers were bypassing meters and underpaying royalties, left tribes realizing “they could do a whole lot better,” Keck said.

The settlements, which vary in amounts from tribe to tribe, could be seed money for more prosperous futures for many tribes, Keck said.

hscofield@durangoherald.com