Utes Issue Ultimatum For Counties


“We mean business,” was the underlying message from the Ute Indian Tribes of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation to outsiders who have commercial dealings with the tribe.

The threat of possible business cancellations with non-members is the latest development in a lengthy controversy over law enforcement jurisdiction on northeastern Utah tribal lands.

Unless two counties discontinue patrols and arrests on lands under tribal jurisdiction, the tribe’s governing business committee will review “all ongoing leases, business licenses, rights of way and access permits of non-members and non-member companies conducting business on the reservation to determine whether cause exists for (their) termination,” the tribe announced in a release January 30.

The tribe contends Uintah and Duschesne counties have unlawfully arrested, prosecuted and detained Ute tribal members, but “the ongoing violations of our tribal members’ rights, and encroachment and violation of our lands and our sovereign authority will come to an end,” said Irene Cuch, chairwoman of the business committee.

The 4.37 million acre reservation includes the two counties and several small communities as well as about 1.3 million acres of trust land that contain significant oil and gas deposits.

In asserting jurisdiction, the tribe notes that the roads in question transect trust lands but also cross areas that meet the definition of “Indian country,” broadly identified as land under federal supervision and set aside primarily for Indian use, inside or outside reservation boundaries, and where Federal and tribal laws apply.

The tribe contends that it maintains jurisdiction over three kinds of non-trust land, as upheld by district and circuit courts—lands apportioned under the Ute Partition Act, lands allotted to individual Indians but now in fee status, and lands exchanged under the Indian Land Consolidation Act.

“State officers do not possess criminal jurisdiction over highways or roads running through reservation lands or through these three categories of land meeting the definition of Indian country, a point the counties have continually refused to acknowledge,” the release states.

Tribal members are harassed and arrested at cultural events and ceremonies that include the Sun Dance ceremony, Cuch said, adding, “They seem to be targeting our ceremonies in an effort to interfere with and disrupt our religious practices and cultural traditions, which will not be accepted any longer.”

Checkpoints on roads across tribal lands harass those attending and returning from funerals and other tribal ceremonies, said Stewart Pike, a business committee member.

Threats to tribal members’ rights and tribal sovereignty will end, Cuch said, “but hopefully it will not come at the expense of non-members who do business with the tribe.”

In the past and up to 2011 the tribe has demanded that county commissioners instruct county sheriffs’ departments to stop patrolling on tribal lands and to cease legal action against tribal members, but the counties “have offered no meaningful response” and instead have increased the patrols and arrests, the release said.

Phone and e-mail requests for comment were made to members of the county commissions of Uintah and Duchesne counties, but there was no immediate response. A commissioner of Uintah County was said to be meeting February 1 with an attorney over the conflict.