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A Long-Serving Tribal Leader Retires

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It was heady days back in the 1980s when Indian gaming began to look like a real possibility, a Ute Mountain Ute leader recalls.

“But tribal leaders were certainly concerned about the procedures that would have to be looked at in working with the states,” said Ernest House Sr. as he recalled conflicts over jurisdiction and rules that finally led to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 and, ultimately, a source of revenue for his and other tribes.

He got accolades and applause at a quarterly gathering of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, the last meeting he attended in his official capacity as Ute Mountain Ute tribal chairman. He told CCIA members he recalled “lots of action” in natural resources, law enforcement, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and other areas.

House Sr.—as differentiated from his son, House Jr., who previously was CCIA executive secretary—served a total of 37 years in several capacities on the Ute Mountain Ute tribal council, 10 of those years as tribal chairman, in what was apparently anyone’s lengthiest stint as a Ute Mountain tribal official.

The retiring chairman, grandson of the last Ute Mountain Ute chief, Jack House, was asked what big changes he had seen over the years, and he cited gaming as one of the major ones.

“Lots of tribes and leaders didn’t want to proceed with gaming, but many of the people wanted to pursue what they could get out of gaming,” he recalled. “After all, at that time, we were not sure what the states would ask for and how the states would hold on to Indian dollars.”

The outcome of the uncertainty of those times was today’s Ute Mountain Casino, with 700-plus slots, one of the largest gaming and resort destinations in the Four Corners region that includes southwestern Colorado where the tribe’s headquarters are located.

“Education was different then, too,” he said. “Today, we certainly have a large pool of qualified Native Americans. Those are some things I look back on and think it’s a better world than what we grew up in. We went down the road to self-improvement, and it’s a very good venture for us to be on.”

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Not that there aren’t a lot of issues remaining, among them the nuts and bolts of oil and gas development, farm and ranch operations, renewable energy, and others.

“Tribal government is better than what we had,” he said, explaining that while formerly the “feds held things down, now consultation is required—now it’s a little better understood.”

“We’re still resolving our sovereignty issues” and there can be problems with waivers of sovereignty when dealing with outside interests. “We have to be careful about what we want to give up.”

Down the road, he said he hopes the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe will follow the path to prosperity used by its sister tribe in Colorado, the Southern Utes, in setting up a business committee to deal with tribal business prospects and avoiding the political element and rapid turnover that can plague tribal council control.

House Sr. is known for light-hearted joking, but he can be direct, as he demonstrated at a meeting last year with the state’s Native Caucus when “Indian” school mascots were discussed. Despite conciliatory sentiments expressed by others, he was to the point: “It’s 2010—we don’t have to have those names. What that brings to the community is racism. In my opinion—do away with all Indian names.”

Once, addressing a powwow in Denver, he said youth should be told: “We are native of this country. I am proud of who I am. I am proud to be a Native American.”

Then there is his position on the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, which rivals nearby, better-known Mesa Verde National Park.

Instead of its becoming part of the National Parks system, he would like to see the tribal park set aside from an American Indian, not archaeological, point of view to preserve the history of the Mancos Canyon people and to “keep it simple, just so that people can walk in.”

Over the years, the former paratrooper said he looked primarily to two mentors, the late leaders Wendall Chino, Mescalero Apache, and Roger Jourdain, Red Lake Band of Chippewa. “I’ve been honored to work with many tribes and tribal leaders in my 37 years,” he said of the time he served with little interruption after he was first elected to tribal office in 1979.