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Termination-era issues land in federal court

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DENVER – A controversy that began half a century ago in the tribal termination era came to rest Oct. 19 when a federal appellate court turned down a request to reconsider a Ute group’s water rights.

The Ute Distribution Corporation appealed a decision from federal district court in Utah that denied UDC’s claim of unfairness in water rights division and distribution between groups termed by UDC the “mixed-blood” and “full-blood” Ute Indian Tribe members.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of UDC’s unfairness claim and instructed the court to clarify that its dismissal was based on UDC’s failure to file within a required six-year time period.

The original issues arose when the Ute Partition and Termination Act of 1954 called for the “partition and distribution of the assets of the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah between the mixed-blood and full-blood members” and an ultimate end to federal trust responsibility.

The UDC was created to carry out a plan for the distribution of tribal assets after the mixed-blood group was being prepared in 1958 for termination from the Ute Tribe three years later, according to the appeals court filing.

The former Ute Tribe members contended during the 1950s and 1960s that the federal government improperly terminated their status as federally recognized Indians.

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Beginning in 1969, the Affiliated Ute Citizens group – which represented the so-called mixed-bloods in the distribution of tribal assets – began to contest the division of assets, including water and water rights, although it had earlier approved the division plan and created the UDC to manage assets jointly with the tribal business committee, according to court records.

In 1995, the UDC contended that tribal water rights had not been quantified at the time tribal assets were distributed, but the courts disagreed and in 2004 the secretary of the Interior said tribal water rights were an asset that had been equitably distributed, a decision affirmed by the district court.

The current lawsuit arose from a convoluted series of events that began at least as early as the 19th century.

The Uintah and Ouray Reservation was created in 1861, and the Uinta Band – aboriginal occupants of much of present-day Utah – was forcibly relocated to the reservation, as, decades later, were members of the White River and Uncompahgre Bands who had historically resided in western Colorado, according to court records of an earlier appeal.

In 1937, the Ute Indian Tribe was created under the Indian Reorganization Act, but under that act the three bands were “coerced, threatened, fooled and otherwise forced” to seek termination of their status as federally recognized Indians to secure distribution of a $32 million judgment awarded for lands taken, court records state.

In 1954, “under pressure from the Department of the Interior, the Ute Indian Tribe voted to ‘terminate’ from the tribe what it referred to as its ‘mixed-blood’ members and to divide the assets of the tribe between the ‘mixed-blood’ and ‘full-blood’ Utes,” according to the earlier appeal.

Irregularities occurred in the tribe’s vote at the time, including that it was not ratified by the Uinta Band, members of which constituted most of the “mixed-blood” members, the litigants said.