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Utah Governor Meets with Tribes Over Firing

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The firing of Forrest Cuch, long-time head of Utah’s Division of Indian Affairs, resulted from alleged shortcomings in his performance of tasks for Utah’s annual Native American Summit and for other, unspecified performance issues, according to the deputy chief of staff for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

After the Utah governor terminated Cuch abruptly last month, the governing committee of the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Fort Duchesne, Utah, wrote a letter objecting to his firing. Ally Isom, the deputy, said she did not know whether the governor had responded to the letter.

But, she said, Utah tribal leaders did not express disagreement with Cuch’s firing when Herbert met with them March 23 to “discuss the future of the Division of Indian Affairs and their role in selecting a new director.” She added that the tribes will participate in the initial vetting of candidates but not the final selection since it is the governor’s appointment to make.

“They had a good conversation,” she said of the meeting with tribal leaders. “The governor was disagreeing with Forrest’s performance and wanted someone to act as a strong advocate for the tribes.”

“They didn’t counter what the governor said. They were interested in moving forward,” she said of tribes at the meeting, and they were “not at all” in disagreement with the governor’s terminating Cuch after they heard what the governor had to say.

In contrast to the spokesperson's account, the Salt Lake Tribune said March 24 the tribes in a resolution called Cuch's dismissal “patently offensive” and said it showed disrespect for tribal sovereignty.

Cuch did not act as a strong advocate for the tribes because “it was felt he didn’t follow through with assignments or projects” specifically the annual tribal summit that “was not adequately staffed by the Division so the election staff had been picking up the slack,” she said. “Other agencies no longer wanted to work with Mr. Cuch.”

The tribal summit was “the final issue—the governor had been trying to work with Forrest for a few years.” She said his firing had nothing to do with political matters Cuch raised, including his belief the governor feared a dent in the state’s tax base if a large tract of land in northeastern Utah, set aside for a Ute band, were found to have never been disestablished.

Cuch had also cited in connection with his firing his stance on a controversial Utah Transit Authority proposed substation location; a water rights struggle affecting the Goshute Reservation in western Utah; Central Utah Project issues, and on-reservation business and employment rules that reflected an emphasis on sovereignty.

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The governor’s spokesperson dismissed Cuch’s thoughts about the reasons for his termination as “speculative” and insisted that his firing was solely related to job performance.

A representative from the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Cuch’s home reservation, did not object, she said by phone. Other Utes present were from White Mesa, Utah and from the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in southwestern Colorado.

All the Utah tribes were represented at the meeting March 23, she said. In addition to the Ute tribes, Utah includes the Paiute Indian Tribe, Goshute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Confederated Tribe of the Goshute, Skull Valley Goshute, and Northwest Band of the Shoshone Tribe.

The tribal leaders were assembled for a monthly meeting and Herbert invited them to the governor’s mansion to discuss the changes and the alleged failures that led to Cuch’s dismissal.

Cuch, an employee of 13 ½ years, at the time he was disappointed the governor did not take the time to talk matters over with him. He was not immediately available for comment.

Curtis Cesspooch, former Ute Indian Tribe chairman, said “The Ute Tribes are capable of determining their own issues without any outside influence, including any people from the state who might suggest otherwise.”

The Ute Indian Tribe, formally objecting to his firing in February, said, “While recognizing that the decision to terminate Mr. Cuch is within the governor’s executive prerogative, the tribe objects to the fact that the Ute Indian Tribe and other Tribes in Utah were not consulted in advance of the decision or provided with any explanation of the reasons for Mr. Cuch’s termination.”

“He has served to reshape the role of tribal-state relations in the State of Utah by promoting a policy of increased recognition for the unique cultural and political identities of the tribes, and has worked tirelessly to ensure that the rights of the tribes were protected and maintained,” the letter states.

The unilateral action by the governor “is not in the spirit of maintaining a government-to-government relationship with Native Americans and will not be accepted by the Ute Indian Tribe,” the letter notes. It also requested a March 23 meeting.