The long-time head of Utah’s Division of Indian Affairs was fired abruptly February 24, when he said he was told to “pack and leave” because the division was “changing course and direction.”
Forrest Cuch, a Uintah Band member of the Ute Indian Tribe, Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Utah, said he knew he served at the governor’s will and “had no rights,” but “we could have sat down and talked, and I would have understood.”
Although Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s office has declined specific comment to local news media, Cuch said he and others feel several issues have come to a head that may have contributed to his having been dismissed after 13 ½ years on the job.
The background issues may include the state’s possible fear of loss of a big chunk of its tax base, taken together with various sovereignty-related developments.
“The state is not comfortable with the federal presence in the first place and they want more control over tribes,” he said, adding that state officials “know I know these things and they’re not comfortable with that.” Policies less favorable to Indians could be in the state’s future, he said.
Cuch cited recent controversy over whether the Uncompahgre band ever relinquished ownership of a two million acre-tract in the Uintah Basin east of Salt Lake City; a controversial Utah Transit Authority proposed substation; a water rights struggle affecting the Goshute Reservation in western Utah; Central Utah Project information, and on-reservation business and employment rules.
The former director said he has tried to transmit information to and from the tribes about various issues while maintaining official neutrality, but that—as in the land ownership controversy—the information itself “might have frightened the state.”
The large tract of land in northeastern Utah, mostly in the public domain, was set aside in 1882 for the Uncompahgre band of Utes and was never federally disestablished nor relinquished, Ronald Yellowbird, a band member, said in a letter to the tribal newspaper of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Ignacio, Colo. where he resides on original tribal homeland.
Loss of the lands to Utah taxation could greatly affect the state’s tax base and “lays open the possibility they (Uncompahgre) may own the reservation,” Cuch said.
The substation controversy arose when UTA selected a business-friendly location that was also a 3,000-year-old archaeological site and, although the site was changed, the Army Corps of Engineers will have to hold hearings in March on possible violations of easements under section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, he said.
A similar development-oriented dispute arose along the Utah/Nevada border, where the Southern Nevada Water Authority seeks to pump water from a Snake Valley aquifer that is a major water source for the Goshute Indian Reservation, he said.
Following the advice of a state official, the Goshutes made a $2 million investment in a filing for 10,000 acre-feet of water rights—rather than the 50,000 acre-feet they wanted--with the state, not the federal government, even though the same official later told them they should have filed with the federal branch, Cuch said, recalling meetings he attended.
The Central Utah Project, a major federal water development project begun a half-century ago, would have benefitted from “better information about hydrology and water use,” he said.
In addition to specific shortcomings Cuch said he has observed over the years in the state’s relationship with tribal nations, “They don’t like it that tribes can assess business taxes on the reservation, or that there are tribal employment rights ordinances,” and that relationship may take a harder turn in the future.
Describing his firing, Cuch said he was called in at 3:45 p.m. February 24 at the end of a four-day work week and given the heave-ho. His computer was locked down, his phone de-activated, and he was told to gather up his things.
He was bewildered by the brusque way in which his departure was conducted, and the Ute Indian Tribe’s business committee, the tribal governing body, is considering further action.
“While recognizing that the decision to terminate Mr. Cuch is within the governor’s executive prerogative, the tribe objects to the fact that the Ute Indian Tribe and other tribes in Utah were not consulted in advance of the decision or provided with any explanation of the reasons for Mr. Cuch’s termination," the business committee said.
Cuch “served to reshape the role of tribal/state relations in the state of Utah by promoting a policy of increased recognition for the unique cultural and political identities of the tribes, and has worked tirelessly to ensure that the rights of the tribes were protected and maintained.”
The tribe would not support the governor’s “new direction” for Indian Affairs if it included an abandonment of Cuch’s policy, the business committee said, adding it has issued a letter to the governor requesting further information and a meeting March 23 to discuss any related changes.
Cuch’s future plans include work with a nonprofit consulting firm—Raising American Indian Nations (RAIN)—to which he was not able to devote much time earlier. It involves empowering Indian people and promoting health education, in part by countering erroneous information about diabetes and other ailments coming from some in the medical and pharmaceutical industries.
A new director might be selected from among Utah’s tribal nations, which include the Ute, Dine’, Paiute, Goshute and Shoshoni.