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.
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.
"For us this is a new way of survival, a new way of hunting," John Gamiochipi, a Uintah River Technology planning committee member, stated on the company Web site.
Jonathan Taylor, a Massachusetts-based economic consultant to Indian tribes, sees that as the wave of the next two to 10 years.
"That's a place where tribes that have struggled before have a real opportunity," he said. "There's a lot of variety."
The track record
Indian nations have traditionally dealt primarily with the federal government, but that, too, is changing. Tribes are now working more closely with state governments in many areas, including economic development.
"We've had a very healthy and strong relationship with them in the last four years," said Chuck Spence, deputy director of the Utah Procurement Technical Assistance Center.
The center helps tribes set up companies that qualify for government contracts, often in the Department of Defense. Tribal-owned businesses have preferred status because they're classified as historically disadvantaged.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has made a point to meet with every tribe in the state. Last month he held an American Indian summit that brought tribal and state government leaders together to discuss such issues as education, health care and business development.
Utah tribes have a national reputation for delivering services on time and doing quality work, Spence said.
Still, there is a level of mistrust of Indian-owned companies in the business world.
Some are "actually bold enough" to question whether Indian tribes can be trusted to stand by the terms and conditions of commercial agreements they sign with those wanting to do business on tribal land, according to a May 2006 report to the departments of energy and interior.
Larry Blackhair knows that sentiment well. One of his duties as manager of Uintah River Technology is to market the Ute-owned business.
"It's very difficult to convince companies that we do exist and that we do have a track record," he said from Washington, D.C., where he was attempting to secure new contracts.
For the past five years, Uintah River has digitized and encrypted immigration documents for the Department of Homeland Security. It's currently looking to expand its services to keep up with new technology.
"You have to take a deep look at what your skill sets are," said Carey Wold, senior vice president for Suh'dutsing Technologies, a Paiute computer services company. "You can't bring jobs to people they can't do."
Wold, who worked in economic development offices in Uintah County and the state, said tribal businesses become stigmatized if they don't succeed.
"You have to make sure everything plugs in right. Failure is not an option," he said.
Suh'dutsing, which means cedar tree, last month signed a five-year, $8 million contract with Dugway Proving Ground. The 2-year-old company also was recognized this year among the nation's top multicultural businesses exceeding $10 million in revenue.
CEO Travis Parashonts made it clear when the company started that it was not a "jobs program." It exists to make money, and providing jobs is secondary. Suh'dutsing currently employs 28 people in its Cedar City headquarters and plans to hire nine more.
"Best business practices is what these companies run by," Wold said. "They've done a good job not making these companies into political machines."
Still, pursuing a plan to prosper often causes disharmony within the tribe.
The Ute Tribe has experienced much strife since adopting a financial plan to maximize returns on oil and gas leases in the Uintah Basin. The new vision was set in motion with the hiring of Jurrius, a Texas investment banker and financial consultant who turned the tribe's old way of doing business on its ear.
Tribal Chairwoman Maxine Natchees, who stands firmly behind the aggressive proposal, has faced at least three recall elections. She is still in her first four-year term.
Change, she said, has "been very difficult, painful."
Natchees says her vision for the tribe is to follow the financial plan and gain financial stability and sufficiency. The tribe is well on its way, Natchees said. "The most difficult thing is that some people don't fully understand where we are."
Challenge of change
Not all tribal members see Jurrius in glowing terms. Controversy surrounding his financial vision continues to pick at the tribe.
Former tribal council members Floyd Wopsock and Luke Duncan contend they were ousted two years ago because they disagreed with Jurrius' handling of tribal finances and energy resources. They continue to complain that Jurrius operates too much in secret, leaving people in the dark on his investment activities.
Wopsock is among five Utes who filed suit against the tribe and Jurrius. At the core of the suit is an allegation of "wasteful, predatory or misguided business dealings."
Wopsock contends Jurrius mismanaged and misappropriated tribal assets, including a mortgage on a shopping center that was used to "pay certain tribal members for their political support." The lawsuit also contends Jurrius' financial plan resulted in monetary and job losses as well as mismanagement of oil and gas leases.
"Change is difficult," said Cameron Cuch, an analyst for Ute Energy. Because the tribe has voted on these changes and supported the changes, dissidents only send a dark cloud over the successes.
"They make it very difficult for the tribe to step up and accomplish its goals," Cuch said. "Since making these changes, the tribe has been able to advance itself. We are just now starting to realize some of the real benefits."
While the Goshutes have reaped next to nothing the past 10 years, the Utes, who nearly went bankrupt four years ago, turned their fortunes around.
A better life?
The pursuit of wealth often clashes with tribal tradition and values, particularly when it comes to the land. American Indians living on reservations don't want to see the earth raped to make a buck.
"There's a fine line between tradition and economic development," Bear said eight years ago when the nuclear waste storage project was still new. "Without tradition there is no past, and without economic development there is no future."
He feels the same way today. Opportunities like this don't come along very often, he said.
"The reservation is a hard life," said Bear, who grew up in Tooele but moved to tribal land in 1980. Life without running water or electricity was hard for his young family. "But we survived."
Now the tribe is looking for a better life.
"We want to be just like the outside," Bear said. "When I turn on the light, I want electricity to be there. When I flush the toilet, I expect the waste to go away."
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