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Tribes Look to Casino and Scarce Water for Income

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Ute people of present-day Colorado and Utah heard panels on their distinguished history and promising future at a recent conference, but behind-the-scenes conversation about a hoped-for casino disclosed some barriers to unbridled optimism.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who opposes off-reservation Indian casinos, wouldn’t meet with a Ute Indian Tribe (Northern Utes) delegation from Utah in March even though they had hoped to present some new information about financing for a multimillion-dollar casino complex in Dinosaur, Colorado, pop. 339, just across the Colorado state line from their northwestern Utah reservation boundary.

The governor’s perceived brush-off became a topic of unofficial discussion at a University of Colorado Law School/American Indian Law Program annual conference this month on the Northern Utes, commonly referred to as the “People of the Shining Mountains”.

“He [Hickenlooper] refused to meet,” recalled attorneys Thomas Fredericks, of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, and Jeremy Patterson, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, both of Fredericks, Peebles and Morgan LLP and working with the Northern Utes.

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The Northern Utes had hoped to present a plan under which drought-stricken Denver and the Front Range might have been able to purchase water “on very favorable terms,” from a Northern Ute allocation in the Green River, Patterson said.

“This [Green River] water is presently unusable by the Tribe on Tribal lands,” Fredericks noted in a detailed memorandum on the Northern Utes’ reserved water rights. “The only way for the Tribe to make beneficial use presently is through leasing.”

The governor and Lt. Gov. Joseph Garcia, who chairs the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA), believe that “creating an off-reservation gaming facility is not in the best interest of Colorado,” according to an official statement. Ernest House Jr., Ute Mountain Ute, CCIA director, noted that he and Garcia, however, have met with the Northern Utes and “will be glad to have further discussions with them” as well as with any other Native interests that want to talk with the CCIA.

Casinos’ economic impetus in low-growth areas and increasingly scarce and costly water supplies in others may prove to be major forces in the state in the near future. The Northern Utes could obtain trust land adjacent to their reservation, precluding need for the governor’s approval while, at the same time, the two Ute tribes in Colorado may be able to market water they receive from the massive Animas-La Plata Project.

“It’ll be interesting to watch things develop,” one long-time tribal observer said.