A time of change — Industry plans cause discord in, out of tribes

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 26 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Children play basketball during a lunch break at the annual tribal powwow at the Goshute reservation in Ibapah in August.

Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

Third in a five-part series

Talk all you want about Utah Indian tribes reclaiming their sovereignty.

Say what you will about self-advocacy and self-determination being the ticket to success for Utah's American Indians, who remain some of the state's most beleaguered people.

The effort, tribes say, means the difference between a languishing culture and a promising future, but change is harder than it seems.

When the Ute Tribe in eastern Utah changed its way of doing business, some of its 3,100 members balked at the profound change in philosophy. So did the companies that for years had sweetheart deals at the tribe's expense, said John Jurrius, who has guided the Utes back from the brink of financial hopelessness in the past few years.

"I think it's fair to say that everyone threw a fit," he said.

The Skull Valley Band of Goshutes' controversial plan to make millions of dollars on its land has caused nothing but contention in and out of the tribe.

Politicians, environmentalists and residents line up to stop the band from contracting to store nuclear waste on its 18,000-acre reservation in the western Utah desert. The unpopular proposal also splintered the tribe to the point that elections were canceled.

Leon Bear, recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as tribal chairman, was accused of misusing part of the $1.5 million Private Fuel Storage initially paid in anticipation of building a nuclear waste storage facility.

"It's been a sad affair," Bear said.

The BIA just this month denied a lease allowing PFS to store nuclear waste on the Goshute reservation, which may kill the project.

In the decade since it proposed to turn a patch of sagebrush 50 miles outside Salt Lake City into a radioactive waste dump, the 126-member tribe has made little economic progress. Its only enterprise is a landfill that takes in municipal waste from Salt Lake County.

"It gives our people a job," Bear said.

The landfill currently employes three Goshutes.

Finding a way

Utah Indian tribes run into numerous external and internal obstacles when they try better their usually desperate financial circumstances.

Leaders in several tribes complain that when they pitch an economic development idea or start to make a little money, outsiders try to hold them down. And when they don't make an effort, they're called government-dependent and lazy.

It can be a no-win situation.

"Everybody in Utah has prospered but the American Indian," said Forrest Cuch, Utah Office of Indian Affairs executive director. "I have a problem with that. It's not fair."

Cuch, though, recognizes that some tribes have tried to do too much too fast. They put the cart before the horse, he said.

"Tribes want to do big business before they have developed their work force and become stable in government," he said. Often, the quality of education has limited the tribes' success.

His pyramid for success starts with education as the foundation, followed by leadership and community development. Quality management and governance are next with business development at the top.

Tribes historically have tried to capitalize on their natural resources — land leasing, grazing rights, oil and gas leasing. Some still do. But others, particularly those with little or no reservation land, have had to find other means.

The Ute Tribe was one of the first to embrace the technological revolution, just as it did the horse more than 150 years ago when the tribe roamed the Mountain West.

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