Control over water rights and tribal courts on the Ute Indian Reservation are central issues in Tuesday's Business Committee elections pitting current tribal leaders against tribal dissidents.
Three of six members of the ruling Business Committee, including Chairman Lester Chapoose, are seeking re-election on the eastern Utah reservation, unsettled by recent political controversy and poor economic conditions.Chapoose faces challenger Curtis Cesspooch, a member of a dissident group called Concerned Tribal Members. Business Committee member Maxine Natchees is running against Luke Duncan, also a Concerned Tribal Member.
And incumbent Stewart Pike, who says he is "a servant" of Concerned Tribal Members, will face Jay Groves, assistant Business Committee director, in polling to elect representatives of the tribe's three bands.
Water rights governed by the Ute Indian Water Compact and effects of a water bill in Congress, sponsored by Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, are at the center of the elections, some of the candidates say.
Dissident candidates say the water pact relinquishes too much of the tribe's water rights to Utah government, and Nielson's bill prohibits $514 million in compensation from directly being used on the 2,000-member reservation.
Incumbents, however, argue the water pact finally recognizes tribal water rights and the Nielson measure simply controls reimbursement money just as any appropriation made by the U.S. Congress is controlled.
The water compact gives final jurisdiction over water to the state. Nielson's measure offers the Utes $514 million in compensation for borrowed water rights used in the Central Utah Project.
"There's nothing in it that's for the benefit of the tribe," Pike said, complaining that compensation money will be under the control of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
"We're just being used to get the money," he said. The compensation money, Pike said, will likely be used to build other water projects creating water chiefly for use in other parts of the state.
But Natchees, defending the Business Committee's support for the water pacts, said the agreements are "priceless" because they fully define Ute water rights. Utah now recognizes Ute water rights under the water pact, she said.
What's more, although Nielson's bill would place the compensation money in a trust under the control of the Interior Department, most federal money allotted to Indian reservations is handled via a trust.
Last month the Business Committee transferred supervisory power of the tribal court to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, sparking a contentious effort by dissidents to return the judiciary to the tribe.
Tribal dissidents failed to reverse the Business Committee decision in U.S. federal court and now are awaiting the outcome of Ute elections before attempting again to return the courts to the tribe.
Some charged the court's transfer to the BIA was politically motivated by the Business Committee, some of whom were the subjects of a recall election.
Pike said the incident would be foremost in voters' minds Tuesday, and said the demise of the court and the status of tribal water rights is an example of dwindling tribal independence from state and federal governments.
"It's the erosion of the tribe's sovereign immunity with the blessing of the present Business Committee, with the exception of yours truly," he said.
Natchees angrily denied the Business Committee was responsible for loss of control of its sovereignty.
"I see no threat to our sovereign immunity by the retrocession of our tribal court, in fact it is to strengthen our tribal courts," she said. Competent judges under the BIA will improve the judiciary, she said.