Urban Indians May Benefit From Colorado Law's Changes

A revision to a Colorado legislation may be the key to giving urban Indians in the state a stronger voice in government-to-government issues.

A 37-year-old statute has dictated the relationship between Colorado’s government and the state’s Native residents, while never fully addressing the concerns of today’s growing urban Indian population. That gap could soon be filled if the state’s government-to-government law is updated to include contemporary voices.

Revisions to the existing law are before the current session of the state legislature, where approval is expected.

Under the present law, the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA) is charged with formal relations among sovereigns—the state itself and the two Ute tribal nations within its present borders. The CCIA, which helped to draft the proposed changes, would continue its formal role but could also tackle urban Native issues, primarily through powers of expanded consultation and public awareness promotion.

Native education inequity, homelessness, addiction, incarceration, poverty and other often-urban conditions surfaced in fact-finding conducted by the CCIA last November, when it was learned that, for example, though Native people are 1.2 percent of the state’s population they are about 10 percent of the homeless and 20 percent of those repeatedly jailed.

Updating the CCIA’a role depends on expanding input beyond that of four state departments—social services, health, natural resources and local affairs – empowered in the 1976 statute.

Wider representation from people involved in CCIA and urban issues would “ensure their voices are at the table when the [CCIA] moves forward,” said Colorado Lt. Gov. Joseph Garcia, CCIA chairman and head of the state department of education. “We need to cast a wide net,” said CCIA executive secretary Ernest House Jr., Ute Mountain Ute.

The CCIA bill has cleared the lower chamber of the Colorado General Assembly and is before a Senate committee that deals with state government issues. Non-Native legislators of the bipartisan Tribal/Legislative Caucus sponsored the House bill—Reps. Don Coram (R-58th District) and Michael McLachlan (D-59th District), and also its Senate counterpart—Sens. Ellen Roberts (R-6th District) and Lucia Guzman (D-34th District).

Except for Guzman, whose district includes the urban Denver area, the Caucus lawmakers are from districts in southwestern Colorado that include lands of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian Tribes.

Details of the bill were discussed among supporters before it was introduced February 25 in the state legislature. “Since 1976, the Commission has never touched this legislation to update it or change it to fit the circumstances of today,” House Jr. said at the meeting of CCIA, Caucus and tribal leaders.

Over the years, non-voting ex officio members have been added to the CCIA, and their numbers would be expanded to include representatives from additional state and federal agencies and from such organizations as the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and Denver Indian health, family assistance, and education advocacy groups.

The revised bill, that includes other updates as well, has seen support from both Ute tribes and organizations such as NARF. Gary Hayes, Ute Mountain Ute tribal chairman, said expanding relationships exemplified “partnership” where before there had been a “disconnect” at times. Mike Olguin, Southern Ute tribal vice-chairman, said the wider collaboration would “make things a lot easier to get projects done.”

Among tasks the CCIA plans to complete is a formal state-tribal consultation policy because “now there’s no obligation to do it [consult],” and uniform, streamlined contract language is needed in contracts between federal and state governments that involve tribes, House Jr. said.

A tribal consultation policy and uniform contract language are both needed for bipartisan-assured continuity and permanency despite administration changes that occur over the years, he said.

The “wide net” CCIA hopes to cast will, House hopes, yield more stakeholders and involve more Native individuals in the civic process, because “lots of Native people don’t know what their rights are.” He recognizes there are Colorado residents whose tribal governments are out-of-state, but “we want to include them, as well.”