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Uintas' Ute status debated

Descendants suing to have court restore their place within tribe

Published: Monday, Nov. 21 2005 1:08 a.m. MST

FORT DUCHESNE — Maxine Natchees looks out over an open field where the tribal council used to meet outdoors under the willow trees.

Today, the Ute tribal chairwoman remembers a vote she witnessed as a child. At the time, Natchees had no idea that legal wrangling over that vote would continue for more than half a century.

The vote was one in which Natchees says the so-called mixed-blood Uintas terminated their Ute tribal status. Congress approved the 1954 Ute Partition Act, which disenfranchised some 490 tribal members.

Today, some 665 plaintiffs are suing to regain their tribal status — in some cases relinquished while they were children or before they were born.

The lawsuit, filed, Nov. 4, 2002, in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., claims the terminated Uintas were cheated out of their allotted share of tribal assets and claims the vote Natchees remembers wasn't legitimate.

The U.S. Justice Department has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, which has been under advisement for more than two years. The motion claims the suit is a repeat of previous failed litigation, and that the statute of limitations expired more than 40 years ago.

"They are trying to rehash decisions made years ago. . . . There have been over 24 federal suits filed on the Ute Partition Act," said William R. McConkie, attorney for the Office of the Solicitor. "I think every argument raised (in the suit) has already been raised."

Plaintiffs' attorney Dennis Chappabitty claims the suit raises new questions about events leading up to the termination, and that the statute of limitations doesn't apply.

He says he has proof of a conspiracy "to strip the Uintas of their identity and valuable lands, water and minerals."

The partition created two classes of Utes — the terminated "mixed-blood," who were defined as less than one-half Native American, and the "full-blood" Utes who kept their tribal status.

The lawsuit calls the termination a "grotesque experimental and genocidal federal policy," which plaintiffs claim was orchestrated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and two other bands of Utes, the Uncompahgre and White River.

Oranna Felter, a lead plaintiff and a terminated

Uinta, claims that, despite the act's language, there is only one class of Uinta Utes.

"We are part of the Uintas that wasn't terminated," she said. "When this case is won, we will take the "mixed-blood" off, and be who we are . . . 'Uinta Band of Ute Indians.' "

But Natchees says the suit isn't any different from others that have been filed in the past.

"The ideal would be for them to accept the fact that they were terminated," Natchees said. "It was their choice . . . the federal government went along."

She added that the repeated litigation is draining funds from the tribe that would be better spent elsewhere.

"Every time we have to appear in court, it costs money," Natchees said. "That money could be spent on other purposes — education, housing."

Chappabitty, however, contends the federal government is presenting a false picture of what really happened. He claims the government violated a federally approved tribal constitution, which he says gave legal assurances that no one band could affect, negate or diminish the rights of any of the other bands.

"We haven't found any clear and convincing evidence that the Uinta band voted to terminate themselves," he said. "That's been a fiction."

As a result of the termination, the Ute Distribution Corp. (UDC) was formed to manage the nontangible assets allocated to the mixed-blood Uintas. Each person was given 10 shares.

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