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Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Ute Parallax

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, based on a tiny reservation in southwestern Colorado, is really rich. The 1,400 or so tribal members are, collectively, worth somewhere from $4 billion to $14 billion, making each one a millionaire, at least on paper. This isn't news to a lot of folks, everyone from the Denver Post to the Wall Street Journal has covered this part of the story. I wanted to go deeper; to understand and explain how the tribe got wealthy, and what it might mean for the tribe, the region and other tribes with rich energy resources across the West.

I was also curious about how tribal sovereignty plays into all of this, and how we might/should view a tribe like the Southern Utes, which has expanded its financial empire to far-flung places, including other reservations and to deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

The story has finally come out as a cover story for High Country News. It was a difficult story to write, in part because the subjects of the story -- the tribal government, administration, and employees -- refused to talk to me. That meant I had to do some directional drilling, if you will; getting underneath the surface by starting at the fringes. That took digging into all kinds of Congressional testimony, Mineral Management Service records, and interviewing a lot of outsiders (along with a few insiders on deep background), who are familiar with the tribe and how it works. I was also lucky enough to get an interview with Tom Shipps, the tribe's energy legal/policy guru for the past 30 years, before the tribe slammed its doors on me.

As always happens, the story was cut down significantly in the editing process, and it lost a lot of the context -- and some of the color -- that I was fond of. I also prefer the more opaque "The Ute Parallax" as a title, because it more accurately reflects one of the main concepts I was trying to get at: That depending on which angle you come from, the Southern Utes can look like either a corporation, or a tribe. And the distinction is very important. But the important stuff stayed in there, so please check it out on HCN. It also comes with a good infographic (click on the image multiple times to make it legible) that looks a lot better in the magazine than it does on the web. So subscribe.

I've included the long (okay, way too long) version, complete with exhaustive footnotes, here.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jonathan,
    John and I are subscribers to HCN, but I found your recent article on the Southern Utes to be one of the best I've read there in a long time, due partly, I'm sure to John's deep connection to Ignacio, but also to your thorough research. Your article was incredibly informative, so while reading it, I wondered how and where you got the information, for, as you stated, the Utes are not at all transparent. Thank you for pursuing the matter. The article was clearly written, despite the convoluted nature of the subject. As you state here, you wanted to show that the Southern Utes can look like either a corporation or a tribe. It seems they could also be treated as a nation, as you state, they use their sovereign status when it's convenient and their corporate cloak when it's not. Excellent investigative reporting.

    Also, we've been enjoying your family's culture shock blog, but are disappointed in not being able to comment on it. Best of luck in your great adventure and we look forward to reading more about it.

    Sharon Olbert (