Lezlee Whiting, Deseret Morning News
Oranna Felter and Calvin Hackford are among 500 plaintiffs seeking reinstatement in the Northern Ute Indian Tribe.

ROOSEVELT — A federal judge in Washington, D.C., is scheduled to rule shortly on a federal lawsuit filed last spring by former members of the Northern Ute Indian Tribe who say their "divorce" from the tribe should be reversed.

Some 500 disenfranchised Uinta Utes are seeking reinstatement of their legal designation as members of the eastern Utah tribe.

The issue dates back to the Ute Partition Act of 1954. In theory, all Native Americans in the country were eventually supposed to be terminated, or no longer be wards of the federal government, in a quest to make them blend into America's melting pot.

The termination of all Indian tribes was to be complete by 1961, but the federal plan stalled, and in 1971 President Richard Nixon completely withdrew the termination act.

The 490 Utes, the first — and, as it turned out, the only — group to be terminated from membership in the Ute Tribe, were targeted for termination based on their blood quantum, which had to be at least 50 percent Ute Indian.

Those who failed the blood test were stripped of their identity along with additional land and mineral rights that rightfully belonged to them, said Whiterocks resident Calvin Hackford, who is an original terminated Uinta band member.

Under the Ute Partition Act, which was referred to as a "bill of divorcement," the 490 Uinta Utes were to be given a portion of the assets held by the Ute Tribe. Those assets included grazing rights and income from non-distributable assets such as oil, gas and minerals.

Of the 490 terminated Uinta Utes, 260 were children. If any of the mixed-blood Uintas had fully understood the enormous ramifications of the agreement, they never would have signed their names to the bill of divorcement 50 years ago, said Oranna Felter, a Roosevelt resident who was just 11 at the time her life changed forever.

Sacramento-based Indian law attorney Dennis Chappabitty said the "termination in and of itself was not voluntary at all; it was full of defects, it was full of smoke and mirrors. It was a railroad job, and they (the federal government) hold it out as being voluntary."

Chappabitty, who is Apache and Comanche, was hired by the approximately 500 plaintiffs — some among the 490 originally terminated, some descendants — who each have their individual contract with him.

In addition to having their status as members of a federally recognized Indian tribe reinstated, the terminated Uintas are seeking payment from the federal government of $3 million each.

"The books show that act was executed in a corrupt manner in a way that defrauded the Uintas out of their land and minerals," he said. According to Chappabitty, the terminated Utes were preyed upon by unscrupulous government and private interests offering quick cash for their assets. The mixed-blood Indians were either misled about or didn't fully understand the value of the assets they had been given, he said.

The terminated Uintas received no land or money. Each was given oil, gas and mineral rights through 10 shares of stock in Ute Distribution Corp. to help smooth their transition from reservation life.

The children who were given stock certainly had no concept of its meaning, and the adults, who had lived their entire lives under control of the government, were just as uneducated as to its worth, said Felter.

Many sold those shares and rights — whose value has skyrocketed — for a pittance and have been left with little to sustain them, Chappabitty said.

Today the Ute Indian Tribe itself is the largest shareholder in UDC, with 18 percent of the stock, but a great deal of the stock — including 100 shares owned by a Chicago investment firm — is owned by non-Indians. Court documents submitted by the terminated Utes note that ironically, the corporation was formed with the intent of managing assets for the 490 terminated mixed-bloods.

According to Felter, no other Indian tribe in the United States has had one-fourth of its membership terminated. And with the exception of the mixed-blood Uintas, every other group terminated under similar circumstances has successfully regained its federally recognized status and the accompanying privileges — including free health care and in some cases regular payments from the federal government — as American Indians.

"It's staggering to me to believe that a group of Indian people in Utah would be ignored for so many years by everyone . . . no one has taken the time to look at this from a legal perspective or anything else," said Chappabitty. The plaintiffs are asking the federal government to go back to 1864, to the very beginning of the "marriage," and show them how they were divested of the very thing that belonged to them — the Uinta Valley Indian Reservation. The "Utah Indians" whom the land was set aside for 140 years ago turned into the Uinta Utes, the suit maintains.

"What we are saying in reality is show us how you got the reservation. Show us where you bought it, that's what we are asking the secretary of the Interior," said Hackford, a lead plaintiff in the case. "Our view of all of this is the government had a fiduciary duty that they did not fulfill."

In their motion to dismiss, attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department say the claims made by the terminated Utes are not eligible for consideration because their issues have been previously denied in other lawsuits. They also contend the statute of limitations has run out and the federal government has no say in the matter because the government's trust responsibility to the terminated Utes ceased in 1961.

Should District Court Judge Richard Roberts dismiss their suit, as attorneys for the federal government are asking, Chappabitty said he will examine "the congressional angle" to let Congress know that almost everyone except the intended beneficiaries of the termination act benefitted from it.

The terminated Uintas will never give up fighting for their cause, said Hackford.

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