The future of Utah's Utes is dismal. Or it's bright.
"It all depends on your perspective," says Scott Bigler, executive director of the Duchesne Area Chamber of Commerce.Pessimists point to the unending political turmoil on the reservation, 40 percent unemployment on the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation, the fact few Utes go on to get college degrees and many who do never come back, and the fact that most tribal businesses have been dismal failures, despite the infusion of tens of millions in economic development funds.
On the other side, optimists believe the Utes have too many resources to ever fail. They have only begun to scratch the potential of their agricultural land, oil reserves, water rights and tourism opportunities.
"Anybody who has that many resources, anybody who has that much profitable land ought to be in a position to dictate the economic future for all those around them," Bigler said. "The Utes are in that position. But the problem is they have not been trained to take over the management of those kinds of operations."
Bigler is an optimist, as are a committed group of other local whites and Indians, who believe an economically healthy Indian reservation translates into economic vitality for non-reservation residents, too.It is one reason why community leaders on both sides are launching a cooperative attempt with the Utes to improve relationships between whites and Indians. The long-range goals call for Utes to own and operate their own businesses, manage still others and assume a greater role in their own economic and political destiny.
The partnership agreement calls for education and training of American Indians in positions of business and political leadership. They have also applied for a $40,000 grant to determine how to bring education to younger Utes to train them "to manage their own destiny," including their extensive oil and gas resources, water rights and cattle operations, Bigler said.
The plan is linked directly to the Uintah Basin Applied Technology Center in Roosevelt, which trains young Indians in skilled professions and provides the impetus for Utes seeking advanced degrees at colleges and universities.
The concept can work, Bigler noted. The local school system currently has six Ute teachers who came back to teach after getting college degrees.
"They are as capable as anyone of teaching school or managing a machine shop or other jobs available in the Uintah Basin. But they are not trained for management positions, and that is an education problem."
Duchesne County is and always has been Ute country, at least in historic times. But after the federal government created an Indian reservation for three different bands of Utes, they then opened the reservation to homesteading by whites in 1905.
The federal government eventually put a halt to that practice, but today the reservation is pocked with 160-acre privately owned ranches and towns, the remnants of the original homesteaders. Today they are islands on a sea of undeveloped Indian land.
For years, whites have responded with a stereotypical circle-the-wagons mentality. Confrontation and racial prejudice were not, and in many cases are still not, uncommon, Bigler said.
Those pushing greater cooperation are fighting generations of Ute tradition that dictates that the White Man's world is one to be avoided by Indians. Those who pursue advanced degrees or business success on their own are often discriminated against by their own tribal members.
Local whites call it the Lobster Syndrome: Anytime one tries to climb out of the pot, the others pull him back in. The Indians call those who make it out of the pot "apples": red on the outside, white on the inside.
"Success is still equated with capitulating to the white man's way," Bigler said.
And, it remains difficult for young Utes to turn those attitudes around by themselves. Which is why Bigler said it is critical the partnership agreement include both Anglos and Utes working together to change attitudes on and off the reservation.
And the time to do it is now, Bigler adds. Some $125 million in CUP money is earmarked for economic development on the Ute Reservation - an economic impact certain to have a tremendous spillover effect on local government. And local government has taken notice.
"We want to turn the Indian problem into an Indian positive," Bigler said. "There are lots of federal aid programs to the Indians, guaranteed federal contracts, things like that that give them an economic advantage that can benefit the entire county."
The Indian problem, in part, is centered on court rulings that Indians do not have to pay sales tax on or off the reservation. Purchases made in Roosevelt - where Utes buy everything from a $5 lunch to a $15,000 auto - benefit the local businessmen, but provide no return to the county or city.
"The Utes use all the same municipal services as the white folks, but they don't pay for any of it," Bigler explained.
"We in the business community must recognize the importance of the Utes in the local economy," Bigler said. "Businesses here couldn't survive without them. They pump millions of dollars into the local economy."
But these movers and shakers face an uphill battle. The Duchesne County economy remains almost exclusively owned and operated by whites; there are few Utes even employed in white businesses. And despite large voting blocks, there are no Utes in leadership or administrative positions in county or city government.
"It may take 10 years," Bigler said. "We are just now beginning to see the results of efforts started ten years ago."