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Longstanding Ute Conflict Is Heard

The fallout from the Termination Era affects Native lives today, a half-century after its inception, according to current litigation.
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The fallout from the Termination Era affects Native lives today, a half-century after its inception, according to current litigation.

With a nod to a decades-long dispute, a federal appeals court has ruled in favor of former Ute tribal members who sought greater autonomy from the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in eastern Utah.

The former members established the Ute Distribution Corporation (UDC) in connection with the Ute Partition Act of 1954, when 490 Utes (termed “mixed-bloods”) were abolished from the tribe (which was to include only “full-bloods.”)

The “mixed bloods” received compensation, including 10 shares each in the UDC, which became their representative organization to administer indivisible assets, including water and mineral resources, jointly with the Tribe’s Business Committee.

The current dispute centered on the UDC’s decision to bar tribe members and other tribe-related applicants from serving on the UDC board of directors. The tribe appealed a lower court decision upholding the UDC’s position, but the UDC was affirmed January 5 by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals which noted historical conflict between the two groups.

“The UDC characterizes history as one of continued conflict over the jointly managed assets and accuses the tribe of repeatedly attempting to diminish the power and property of the mixed-bloods,” the panel said, noting that the tribe said joint management of the assets was “largely harmonious,” although even before the current litigation “there had been several points of friction between the tribe and the UDC.”

The ongoing disagreements stem in part from a perception by the UDC board of directors of “a takeover threat from the tribe,” the court said. The UDC in barring tribe members and affiliates from the board said that because of joint UDC-tribe assets management “it is critical for all members of the Board of Directors to remain independent from the Ute Indian Tribe and free to vote on all matters in the best interest of this (UDC) and its shareholders.”

Directors’ qualifications “may be based on the potential for a conflict of corporate loyalty,” the court said, and the tribe, which holds about 20 percent of UDC shares, “cannot credibly maintain that there is no potential for future conflict between the tribe and the UDC.” The Act itself recognized the potential for conflict by including a provision for handling disputes between the two groups, it was noted.

The main argument posed by the tribe was that the UDC changes created a new class of shares requiring separate votes, but the appeals court disagreed, asserting that the UDC “has never had more than one class of shares.”

The Act that triggered a half-century of controversy was one of a series of Indian termination statutes that stemmed from the federal government’s plan to end both supervisory responsibilities for Indian tribes and special services for former tribal members. The result of the plan, which was subsequently abandoned, was to be the assimilation of tribes into mainstream American society.

Among the Utes, the government terminated “mixed-blood” tribal members, about 27 percent of the total, but retained supervision over “full-blood” members, about 73 percent. After publication of the final rolls, the Ute Indian Tribe was to “consist exclusively of full-blood members” and assets were allocated to the “mixed-blood” members as individuals, except for jointly-administered assets.