We've been here since 1861. —Dora Van
FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — Prove it!
That is Dora Van's answer to anyone who thinks they have a right to the eastern Utah lands that were set aside in the 1800s for Native Americans.
"We've been here since 1861," said Van, who identifies herself as the chairwoman of the Uinta Valley Shoshone Tribe of Utah Indians.
The group is not a federally recognized Indian tribe, according to a 2012 list compiled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But that hasn't stopped Van from filing a 250-page document in four Utah counties asserting the Uinta Valley Shoshone's claim to a real property interest in millions of acres of land.
The document also lays claim to "all water, gas, oil and mineral rights of every kind." It was filed with the recorder's offices in Duchesne, Garfield, Grand, Uintah and Wasatch counties. Only Garfield County rejected it.
"The Garfield County the claim should have gone to is in Colorado," Van said.
Uintah County Recorder Randy Simmons said he had to accept the notice of claim because it was "duly executed and had all the proper functions in the document." That doesn't ease his concern though about the impact Van's filing will have on property transactions in the four affected counties.
"There very well could be a substantial amount of private property that could be impacted by this," Simmons said. "Lending institutions would look at that (notice of claim) and say, 'We're not comfortable with a claim that may bear fruition in court,' and they'd just back away."
To date, there have been no known instances of this happening, but county recorders are saying that title companies are just beginning to find the notice of claim during title searches.
"It could affect thousands of acres on the west side of (Uintah County)," Simmons said.
County officials are studying the filing to see if it violates the state's wrongful lien statute. The law was enacted in 2005, due in part to a number of malicious liens filed by a group claiming to be a Native American tribe against law enforcement officers, judges and prosecutors in the Uintah Basin. It carries both civil and criminal penalties.
"We're not playing around with this," deputy Uintah County attorney Jonathan Stearmer said, referring to the seriousness of the review now underway.
"Anytime there's a wrongful lien, it can have a chilling effect on a specific property," Stearmer said, "but it can also have a chilling effect on business and even a chilling effect on tourism."
Gov. Gary Herbert, who toured the Vernal area Monday, has been informed of the Uinta Valley Shoshone's claim.
"We will be working with, not only the attorney general's office, but the county attorneys out here and the people involved so we can find out how do we resolve the problem," Herbert said.
"We want to do that as soon as possible," he added.
Van maintains that the document she filed is legal. She has based her group's claims to land and resources on treaties signed in the mid-1800s, and on congressional actions taken later in that century that created the Uinta Valley Indian Reservation.
The reservation, which later became the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, is home to the Ute Indian Tribe. Jeremy Patterson, an attorney for the tribe, said Van will likely face legal action from the Utes as well.
"There are federal laws in place restricting title and conveyance of tribal lands, which would render their claims moot," Patterson said. "They do not have any legal basis in fact or in law to bring a land claim against the Ute Tribe."
The members of Van's group were among whose relationship with the United States ended in 1954 under the Ute Partition Act, according to Patterson.
"As a result, they are no longer recognized as Indians by the federal government," he said.
Van, who disputes Patterson's claims, isn't fazed by the possibility of a civil lawsuit or a criminal charge.
"If they want us to fight over it, we will," she said. "We'll go to battle with them. We know what we're talking about."