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Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Colorado

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The Southern Utes have become the first American Indian tribes to win Fitch Inc.'s top bond rating. The AAA rating on general obligation bonds gives the 1,375-member tribe a better credit rating than Japan or Canada and means the tribe will not have to pay as much to borrow money. Fitch praised the tribe's management team for sticking to a successful 1999 financial plan. The Southern Utes also have large returns from natural gas and other minerals on the 700,000-acre reservation. Rating agency Standard & Poor plans to rate the tribe by the end of June. Tribe financial analyst Brian McNiell said the Southern Utes plan to issue tax-exempt general obligation bonds at 2.15 percent even though they don't need to raise the money. 'It's just a great rate for us to finance infrastructure,'' McNiell said. 'If we can borrow at 2 percent and earn 40 percent, there's no reason why we shouldn't.'' The tribe's net worth is more than $1 billion.