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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Southern Ute recall progresses (and why we should care)

Interesting news from the Old Country (as I like to call my home-region back in the U.S): Dissidents within the Southern Ute Indian Tribe appear to have successfully moved a recall effort to the next phase. When I wrote about the tribe this past spring, the recall effort, after a strong start, was foundering. Its leaders were passionate enough in their convictions to toss out the current tribal council, saying the council had mismanaged tribal money and become pawns of its white advisors. But they weren’t having much luck building a following, and the leaders of the effort – mostly elders – had their own personal concerns to contend with. Now, it appears that some new blood has entered the fray, and they’ve switched the focus of the effort a bit. According to the Durango Herald, the recall cabal is now accusing Tribal Chairman Matthew Box of “being less than transparent, dismantling the tribe's health program and denying members and employees an arena to air their complaints.”

The Herald plays the story pretty straight without going into much background. But read between the lines – and take a look at the readers’ comments that follow the story – and you quickly see the challenges that this sort of story brings for both the tribe, and the newspaper covering it. As is almost always the case with any story that has even a whiff of controversy attached, the Southern Ute leadership refused to comment. And, as is often the case, some commenters fretted over the fact that the non-tribal newspaper was airing the tribe’s dirty laundry.

Indeed, the tribe, being a sovereign nation, is not beholden to the non-tribal media, and so shouldn’t be compelled to give comments to the Durango Herald. And, since people outside of the tribe won’t be voting in any recall election, it makes sense that tribal members might want to keep this process secret from the outside world.

But the Southern Utes are perhaps the most influential entity in the Four Corners region. They were responsible, or partially so, for the construction of the Animas-La Plata project and the relocation of Mercy Medical Center from the center of Durango to its outskirts. The Mercy move, in turn, created an anchor for the Southern Ute-owned Three Springs “neighborhood,” which, when built out, will be as big as a small town. That, in turn, will pull Durango’s growth in that direction, encouraging yet more sprawl and possibly necessitating the construction of new roads through the Horse Gulch/Raiders Ridge area to make it easier for downtown Durangoans to access their new exurb (and only hospital). The Southern Ute tribe is the region’s biggest employer, providing more professional-level jobs, with salaries to match, than any other public or corporate entity. In one way or another, the tribe controls or has partial control over most of the oil and gas resources in southwestern Colorado.

So what happens with the Southern Ute also ripples out to the entire Four Corners community. And that makes those happenings of interest to all the residents of the region, Ute or not. As for the tribal government, it would behoove them to open up to the outside press. Or, at the very least, it should provide more information to the Southern Ute Drum and allow it to disseminate that information freely. That does not appear to be happening now. Because the Southern Ute Drum’s staff is employed by the tribe, it can’t be relied upon to dig up the truth. In fact, everything the Drum prints is potentially as tainted as any state-owned news organization anywhere. Which is to say, its credibility is rather weak.

But if we outsiders demand information from the tribe, then we’re also demanding some sort of accountability. We’re saying that we – those outside the tribe – should have some influence or say in how the tribe governs itself. But to have such a say is to diminish the tribe’s sovereignty, and it reeks of the same sort of paternalism that Native Americans in general have borne the weight of for more than a century. If the feds are called in to clean up the Southern Ute government, doesn’t it imply that the tribe is unable to govern itself?

So, on the one hand, this recall effort (and even the way outsiders may react to it) is no more than a group of people within a political entity doing their best to pursue democracy. On the other, it’s both a test and exercise of that elusive concept of tribal sovereignty. And what’s tribal sovereignty? Ask 10 lawyers, tribal leaders or academics what tribal sovereignty means, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. That’s in part because tribes in the U.S. are unusual entities with extremely complex and always changing relationships with state and federal governments. It doesn’t help that the bodies exercising sovereignty – tribal governments – were in many cases created or imposed upon the tribes by the federal government at a time when the feds would have been happy to just see the tribes vanish. There’s a historical component to all of this, in other words, and that component is neither pretty nor simple.

Complex as it is, tribal sovereignty is extremely important to the nation, but especially the West. It will become more important as more tribes follow the Southern Ute example. So, it’s worth following this recall effort very closely.

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