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Ute Indian Tribe Statement On Uncompahgre Lawsuit

On March 9, 2018, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation (“Tribe”) filed suits against the United States of America for the United States’ blatant mismanagement of the Tribe’s Uncompahgre Reservation lands. The Tribe has filed two federal complaints—one in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and one in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The former complaint primarily seeks significant monetary relief to compensate the Tribe for the United States’ sale and use of its Uncompahgre Reservation lands, while the latter complaint seeks quiet title to the lands of the Uncompahgre Reservation, among other things. Both cases are titled Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation v. United States of America. The Tribe’s claims in the two cases are solely against the United States.

The Tribe’s claims are based upon one of the core obligations that the United States made with the Ute Tribe when the United States took most of the Tribe’s lands in Utah, Colorado, and adjoining states. That core obligation was that in exchange for taking most of the Tribe’s lands, the United States solemnly promised to permanently protect and preserve the Tribe’s Reservation. The Tribe’s suit seeks to enforce that federal legal obligation to the Tribe.

The United States has responded to the Tribe’s complaint in the U.S. District Court by filing a motion to dismiss four of the five claims set forth in the district court case. This is the United States’ standard operating procedure when faced with suits like this. The United States raises every issue it can think of which might possibly prevent the court from resolving claims by tribes or might diminish federal liability. The fact that the United States filed a motion to dismiss is therefore not surprising, although some of the federal arguments in the motion adopt a position to reflect a more strident position than the United States generally takes.

The United States does not move to dismiss one of the claims, and that claim raises the most important issue in the lawsuit, but the United States moves to dismiss the remaining claims based upon the United States assertion that the Tribe had waived its claims to litigate these issues related to the Tribe’s Uncompahgre lawsuit as a part of a 2012 Settlement Agreement resolving a past lawsuit against the United States dealing with the management of the Tribe’s trust resources. The United States response is replete with false information and misrepresents the express terms of the 2012 Settlement Agreement. In its motion to dismiss the Tribe’s complaint, the United States has ignored past decisions of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals clarifying that the Tribe’s Uncompahgre Reservation has been neither diminished nor disestablished. In addition, the 2012 Settlement Agreement makes clear that “nothing in this Settlement Agreement shall diminish or otherwise affect in any way….claims related to the Uncompahgre Reserve which was allotted pursuant to the Act of 1897.”

By claiming the Ute Indian Tribe waived its claims to the Uncompahgre Reservation, the United States has once again embarked on a process of failing to honor its agreements with Tribal Nations as it has done time and again throughout history. The 2012 Settlement Agreement was issued pursuant to an initiative that called “SPOA,” the “Settlement Proposal to the Obama Administration.” In establishing a new chapter for improved relations between the United States and Tribes, it was put forward by the past Federal Administration to right historical wrongs that had been perpetrated against Tribal Nations in the mismanagement and improper accounting of the Tribe’s resources and monies, held by the United States for the benefit of Tribes pursuant to the United States trust responsibility to Tribal Nations. At the time the settlement was announced, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has announced that “[t]hese important settlements reflect President Obama’s continuing commitment to ensuring empowerment and reconciliation for American Indians….“[i]t strengthens the government-to-government relationship with Tribal nations, helps restore a positive working relationship with Indian Country leaders and empowers American Indian communities.

By not honoring the terms of the 2012 Settlement Agreement, the current Administration has demonstrated that it is not willing to recognize or uphold the solemn commitments of the United States and should serve as a stark warning to all Tribal Nations that its word cannot be trusted. The actions of the United States in this case put all of the SPOA settlements with other Tribes in jeopardy and the Ute Indian Tribe cautions all Tribes that were part of that settlement process to reaffirm the terms of the settlement with the United States to determine if the settlements will still be honored.

The Tribe maintains its position that it will oppose any motion by the State to intervene in the Tribe’s claim against the United States. There is no lawful basis for the State to intervene in a dispute between the United States and the Tribe, which stems from promises the United States made before Utah was a state. The Tribe will vehemently fight any motion by the State to intervene, and any further attempts by the State to disrespect the Tribe.

About the Ute Indian Tribe: The Ute Indian Tribe resides on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah. Three bands of Utes comprise the Ute Indian Tribe: the Whiteriver Band, the Uncompahgre Band and the Uintah Band. The Tribe has a membership of more than three thousand individuals, with over half living on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The Ute Indian Tribe operates its own tribal government and oversees approximately 1.3 million acres of trust land which contains significant oil and gas deposits. The Tribal Business Committee is the governing council of the Tribe.

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