Members of the Ute Indian Tribe have voted overwhelmingly to defy a court order requiring payment of thousands of dollars in dividends to 15 new tribal members.
Ute members voted 279-15 to instruct the tribe's governing business committee to ignore a tribal judge's order that the committee pay $658,000 in retroactive dividends and interest to the 15, who won a 10-year court battle to get their names on the tribe's membership rolls.The vote flies in the face of an April ruling from Tribal Judge Larry Yazzie that found the committee in contempt of court and fined its six members $250 each for every two weeks they failed to comply with the court order.
However, Business Committee Chairman Lester Chapoose said the panel is bound by the tribe's vote, which spokeswoman Carleen Kurip said settles the payment issue.
As far as the tribe is concerned, the payment issue is finished. If the plaintiffs still wish to pursue the matter, they may have to do so in federal court," she said.
George Mangan, attorney for the 15 members, said he would meet with his clients over the weekend to recommend that they press the contempt ruling in tribal court and sue the tribe in U.S. District Court for violation of civil rights.
"My clients were denied of property rights without due process of law--in fact, in violation of the law," he said.
All tribal members receive dividends as a share of royalties for oil, natural gas and minerals on the reservation.
Mangan said the tribe's constitution, ratified in 1937, stipulates that a child born on the Ute reservation to an enrolled tribal member automatically becomes a member.
Later, he said, the tribe arbitrarily set blood-percentage requirements as a condition for membership. The initial requirement was 25 percent Ute blood, but the percentage later was changed to three-eighths, then 50 percent and finally five-eighths.
In 1977, 15 Ute children sued to get on the tribal rolls. Two years later, the tribal court ruled that the petitioners were members and should receive dividends retroactive to 1977.
The business committee refused to recognize the new members until October 1986, when the panel began paying dividends to the 15 and 1,300 others.
The committee later agreed to make retroactive payments to the 15, but tribal members rejected the plan in a referendum vote in November 1987.