FORT DUCHESNE — Maxine Natchees looks out over an open field where the tribal council used to meet outdoors under the willow trees.

Today, the Ute tribal chairwoman remembers a vote she witnessed as a child. At the time, Natchees had no idea that legal wrangling over that vote would continue for more than half a century.

The vote was one in which Natchees says the so-called mixed-blood Uintas terminated their Ute tribal status. Congress approved the 1954 Ute Partition Act, which disenfranchised some 490 tribal members.

Today, some 665 plaintiffs are suing to regain their tribal status — in some cases relinquished while they were children or before they were born.

The lawsuit, filed, Nov. 4, 2002, in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., claims the terminated Uintas were cheated out of their allotted share of tribal assets and claims the vote Natchees remembers wasn't legitimate.

The U.S. Justice Department has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, which has been under advisement for more than two years. The motion claims the suit is a repeat of previous failed litigation, and that the statute of limitations expired more than 40 years ago.

"They are trying to rehash decisions made years ago. . . . There have been over 24 federal suits filed on the Ute Partition Act," said William R. McConkie, attorney for the Office of the Solicitor. "I think every argument raised (in the suit) has already been raised."

Plaintiffs' attorney Dennis Chappabitty claims the suit raises new questions about events leading up to the termination, and that the statute of limitations doesn't apply.

He says he has proof of a conspiracy "to strip the Uintas of their identity and valuable lands, water and minerals."

The partition created two classes of Utes — the terminated "mixed-blood," who were defined as less than one-half Native American, and the "full-blood" Utes who kept their tribal status.

The lawsuit calls the termination a "grotesque experimental and genocidal federal policy," which plaintiffs claim was orchestrated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and two other bands of Utes, the Uncompahgre and White River.

Oranna Felter, a lead plaintiff and a terminated

Uinta, claims that, despite the act's language, there is only one class of Uinta Utes.

"We are part of the Uintas that wasn't terminated," she said. "When this case is won, we will take the "mixed-blood" off, and be who we are . . . 'Uinta Band of Ute Indians.' "

But Natchees says the suit isn't any different from others that have been filed in the past.

"The ideal would be for them to accept the fact that they were terminated," Natchees said. "It was their choice . . . the federal government went along."

She added that the repeated litigation is draining funds from the tribe that would be better spent elsewhere.

"Every time we have to appear in court, it costs money," Natchees said. "That money could be spent on other purposes — education, housing."

Chappabitty, however, contends the federal government is presenting a false picture of what really happened. He claims the government violated a federally approved tribal constitution, which he says gave legal assurances that no one band could affect, negate or diminish the rights of any of the other bands.

"We haven't found any clear and convincing evidence that the Uinta band voted to terminate themselves," he said. "That's been a fiction."

As a result of the termination, the Ute Distribution Corp. (UDC) was formed to manage the nontangible assets allocated to the mixed-blood Uintas. Each person was given 10 shares.

Many of the plaintiffs were children at the time. They say they were swindled out of their shares during tough economic times. The shares, they say, weren't supposed to be negotiable.

Today, the shares' value is spurred by oil and gas revenue, said Pala Nelson, a member of the UDC board of directors. Nelson declined to release the value of a UDC share today, saying only that "it changes so dramatically as you watch the price of oil and gas."

Chappabitty said the lawsuit is asking for either $10,000 or $3 million per plaintiff, depending on how the court characterizes the claims, and reinstatement of tribal status.

Plaintiff Oranna Felter was 11 years old at the time of the partition, along with about one-third of all terminated Utes who were children, according to the plaintiffs.

Felter says she was a young adult when her mother died, leaving five shares of her late younger sister's UDC stock. Felter said a local judge ordered that the shares be auctioned off.

"My little sister's UDC stock should have never had to be 'sold' to pay 'bills.' " Felter said. "I didn't know what the laws were . . . they did."

But to Felter, the issue is more than just money. It's about her identity as a Native American.

"When they terminated us, they said, 'You're no longer Indian, you're white,' " she said. "They don't recognize our kids as being able to be enrolled (as Utes) or recognized.

"Our own tribe treated us really bad, shunning us," she said. "Whenever we would go to sun dances they'd say you're terminated and you don't belong here."

Chappabitty claims that 850 of the shares are owned by the Ute tribe, and that just under half the shareholders are non-Indian, something he claims goes against the intent of Congress.

Nelson says including original mixed-blood shareholders, their heirs and the Ute tribe, the corporation is an "over 50 percent Indian company."

She says she understands the frustration of those who sold their stocks early on, but said the the stocks included a warning not to sell them.

"People have a right to sell their shares," she said. "At the time when they first started to sell, there was no oil and gas revenue."

Copies of the shares provided by both plaintiffs and UDC stated that until Aug. 27, 1964, members of the Ute Indian Tribe had to be given "a prior and proper offer" before a sale to a non-Ute could be valid. It also warned that the stock should not be sold because its future value couldn't be determined.

Chappabitty said the shares were never meant to be sold, and said the earliest version included "a stamped black and white notice that any sale, transfer, etc. is null and void. . . .

Comment on this story

"They very well knew they could come in and take advantage of poverty-stricken, uneducated . . . Indians," he said.

Plaintiff Alvin Denver, 66, was terminated, and says he's not surprised the case has been pending for so long, even as the number of terminated Utes declines. He says only about one-fourth of the terminated Uintas are still alive.

"Our issue is what is called a back-burner issue, according to the government," he said. "They divided families by doing this . . . now you've got haves and have nots. You've got a lot of jealousy.

"We don't got long to go."