IGNACIO – Members of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Southwest Colorado say their tribal government operates in secrecy, ignores the will of its people and subverts its own constitution.
Much of the angst arises from the Tribal Council’s unwillingness to distribute 100 percent of a $126 million settlement to its approximately 1,500 enrolled members. The tribe has distributed 60 percent of the funds, but some members are demanding the remaining 40 percent.
Tribal members are circulating two petitions: one seeks distribution of the remaining funds, and the other seeks to recall Tribal Chairman Clement Frost and four of the six Tribal Council members. (Two council members – Kevin Frost and Adam Red – have been on the council for less than six months, and therefore cannot be recalled.)
The rift has exposed a longstanding mistrust between some tribal members and their government, which they accuse of using intimidation and bullying tactics to silence and oppress members.
“We’ve always operated in secrecy, and I don’t know where that comes from,” said Arline Millich, who is fighting for the remaining settlement funds. “I want to be able to know what’s going on in the tribe. I want to know how much money we have. I want to know how much is being spent and for what. I think there’s a lot of misuse, and when you don’t let people know, then you become suspicious.”
The tribe holds assets worth more than a billion dollars, yet it discloses little about its financial dealings, including who it employs, how much it pays, and basic revenue and expense reports, members said.
Tribal officials say information relevant to the community is posted on the tribe’s website, broadcast on KSUT-FM or published in The Southern Ute Drum, the tribe’s newspaper. More sensitive information is available to members upon request. They don’t want certain information distributed outside the reservation for a variety of reasons, including members’ safety, said Lindsay Box, communications specialist for the tribe.
“You’re dealing with a lot of big numbers that have potential to cause safety concerns for some of the tribal members living on or off reservation,” Box said. “Along with money comes a lot of other things that are harmful to individuals and to our society.”
It is that nanny-state mentality that some tribal members seek to upend. It is easy to acquire information online about people and their affairs, they said, and America seems to function fine while conducting its business in public.
“You can’t safeguard us all our lives,” Millich said.
A sovereign nation and corporate playerThe Southern Ute Indian Tribe is a sovereign nation and business powerhouse in the Four Corners. It is the largest employer in La Plata County, with 1,220 jobs in government, the casino and its business interests, according to Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado.
The checkerboard reservation covers more than 1,000 square miles along the southern portion of La Plata and Archuleta counties, just north of the New Mexico line. According to the most recent Census estimates, 13,173 people live on the reservation, but most are non-native; the tribe has about 1,500 members, many who live outside reservation boundaries.
The tribe is governed by a seven-member council, including the chairman, elected by the membership to three-year terms. The government oversees a number of departments and services, including education, law enforcement, judicial services, parks and recreation, and social services.
The tribe also controls a major financial branch, the Southern Ute Growth Fund, which oversees a portfolio of companies and investments in energy, real estate, construction and private equity. Operations and assets are spread over 14 states and the Gulf of Mexico.
It is rare for tribal members to air their grievances publicly, but five members met last week with The Durango Herald, saying tribal government is acting undemocratically and crushing the will of its members.
In a sign of how tense things have become, members who met with the Herald scrambled moments before the meeting to ensure they were on solid legal footing to invite a reporter onto the reservation. And Tribal Council sent a communications specialist to listen and take notes. Those who spoke said most tribal members are unwilling to speak publicly for fear of retribution, including getting “blackballed” or being denied future employment with the tribe.
“We have a right to the freedom of speech living in this nation, and we have a right to oppose the views of our government,” said Yvonne Davis, a tribal member who signed the petition seeking funds. “We have a right to utilize the Constitution that was put in place for this tribe, to use our freedom of our voice. That freedom has been halted, it’s been put aside, it’s been betrayed and we need to stick together, unite, and start standing up for ourselves and quit being fearful.
“Leaders who are true leaders do not intimidate, do not bully, do not coerce, do not oppress,” she said. “They talk to their people, they find out what the problems are and they try to resolve the issues. I do not see that happening here.”
More money, more problemsThe Southern Ute Indian Tribe received a $126 million settlement in September to resolve a lawsuit accusing the federal government of mismanaging monetary assets and natural resources held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the tribe dating to the late 1800s.
Dozens of other tribes filed similar lawsuits, known as the Sisseton lawsuits, that alleged improper record-keeping, incorrect interest rates and other historic claims related to mismanagement of Indian resources.
The federal government will pay about a billion dollars to tribes to resolve the lawsuits and wipe the slate clean.
As sovereign governments, tribes can use the money as they see fit.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe distributed 60 percent of the settlement after lawyer fees to its members late last year. Some members used the thousands of dollars they received to buy a new car, pay off a house or funnel it into a business, according to interviews.
Tribal Council has suggested it would use the remaining 40 percent to pay for a laundry list of services and programs, including health care, education, housing, employment, new investment opportunities, financial literacy, economic development, repairs to an irrigation project, enhancing museum and cultural resources, records management, youth services and recreation.
But some tribal members say the tribe already funds those services, and they fear the money will go into the tribe’s huge budget with no accountability for how it is spent.
What’s more, they question the tribe’s fiduciary decision making. The tribe has hundreds of employees, a cadre of lawyers and generous services for a tribe of 1,500 members, said those who spoke to the Herald.
“A lot of tribal departments overspend,” said Judy Lansing, a tribal elder collecting signatures for the recall. “If somebody went in there and did an audit, you could see a lot of waste, a lot of things they use for nothing.”
Distribution of the remaining settlement funds could make a real difference in the lives of Southern Ute members, especially those living off the reservation, said Dedra White, who is collecting signatures for the referendum petition.
“This money can help their life; this money can help their endeavors,” White said. “In this petition, there’s a lot of dreams, homes, people that bought some businesses.”
Petition deemed invalidTribal members submitted a petition Feb. 13 with 218 valid signatures requesting full distribution of the Sisseton funds. A tentative election date was set, but after discussing the petition Feb. 20, the Tribal Council canceled it, saying the petition was invalid because it didn’t call for an up or down vote on an existing or proposed resolution/ordinance before the council.
“Council has neither enacted nor proposed any resolution or ordinance appropriating or distributing the funds,” the Tribal Council wrote in a March 3 letter in the Drum. “Rather, the petition attempts to legislate how Tribal funds are spent, and those are powers that are exclusively reserved for Tribal Council as stated in the Constitution.”
Also, the petition addressed more than one “particular issue,” a violation of tribal election code, in part because it creates voter confusion, the council said.
Tribal members last week submitted a new petition limited to one topic.
“Tribal Council has the commitment to ensure that any petition for referendum is constitutionally valid,” the communications specialist wrote in an email to the Herald.
Tribal Council is a stickler for the rules on the petition, yet it may have violated its own code by failing to act on the petition within three days, Davis said. She’s frustrated by the hypocrisy.
“I feel like a circus animal on a drum, and they’re going, ‘Here, jump through the fiery hoop,’ and I’m going, ‘Here I go.’ You know what, I’m going to keep coming back like a deer fly,” she said. “I’m not going to go away. This is not going to go away. We are going to continue on, because it is our right to do so.”
It took only five days to collect 218 valid signatures; they needed 185 signatures – or 20 percent of registered tribal voters.
With four votes, Tribal Council could call an election and let members decide on the funds’ distribution, White said. Or councilors could vote to distribute the remaining funds without an election, in accordance with the will of the people, she said. Instead, members were made to start a new petition – and those involved question whether Tribal Council will ever let it go to a vote.
The tribal government was vague when asked how it would use the remaining Sisseton funds.
“The settlement addressed decades of damages at the hand of the federal government,” Box wrote in her email. “Tribal Council has sole discretion of how best to appropriate those tribal funds. This weighty decision is not made hastily; rather, Tribal Council is reflecting on the possible ways to repair those damages while honoring how previous leaders made comparable decisions throughout tribal history.”
Lillian Seibel, a tribal elder who served on the council from 1980 to 1995, said she has heard much support for 100 percent distribution, including from tribal elders, and in a survey of tribal members. But Tribal Council, she said, hasn’t honored people’s wishes or explained its rationale for keeping the funds.
It didn’t used to be that way, she said.
“In the beginning, I didn’t want to sign the referendum,” Seibel said. “But then as I listened and witnessed a lot of things going on. I said, Tribal Council has to be accountable and transparent. If they ask the people what do they want, and they get responses from the people, then they should honor that. Those are the people that put them in office.”
When asked to respond to members’ concerns about tribal leadership’s openness, willingness to listen and act democratically, the emailed response was: “Each of the Tribal Council members take an oath to uphold the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Constitution. They also truly believe that in their leadership role, they are tasked with making tough decisions, taking into consideration the comments from membership, but also are very aware that their decisions impact future generations and tribal resources.”
‘We live in this sick society’The Southern Ute Indian Tribe became wealthy thanks to its vast coal-bed methane and natural gas resources, followed by successful investments in real estate and oil drilling around the country.
Some people may think the Southern Utes are being greedy by demanding the remaining settlement funds, said Millich, who signed the petition. But there’s something “sick” about a society where information doesn’t flow freely, creating suspicion and paranoia toward the government, she said.
“We live in this sick society,” she said.
As a sovereign nation, the tribe isn’t required to adhere to state and federal open-record laws.
“People think we really have it great here, but I’ve lived on this reservation many years, and I’ll tell you, it hasn’t always been great,” Millich said. “We’re a very unhealthy reservation when you put all kinds of censors on a group of people. We have to start looking at a better way of life.”
Some tribal members will object those speaking out about the business of tribal government, she said, but information needs to be shared – and the tribal government hasn’t been doing it.
“What I really don’t like is we always hear things by gossip,” she said. “I guess I don’t like gossip, and I don’t trust it.”