With its three-story wall of mirrored, curved glass and steel, the Southern Ute Growth Fund headquarters has the glossy, enigmatic appearance of something in a business park in metro Denver or San Jose. But it's located in Ignacio, a town of 800 nestled among the irrigated pastureland, pinon, juniper and sage of southwestern Colorado. About half the residents of Ignacio are Hispanic and the rest are Natives or whites; 20 percent live below the poverty line. The town has a beaten-down, working-class flavor, and the tribe's modern administrative and financial complex -- including the Growth Fund building and the new casino, with its 124-room hotel and 24-lane bowling alley -- seems oddly out of place.
From this nerve center, the tribe's energy arm has reached into at least eight other states. The real estate arm owns or invests in developments and buildings in Denver and its suburbs, the San Diego suburb of Oceanside, as well as Kansas City, Houston and Albuquerque. The tribe's GF Private Equity portfolio -- for which the tribe is reportedly seeking a buyer, so that it can concentrate more on oil and gas -- includes biotech ventures and defense contractors. Closer to home, the tribe is developing Three Springs, a "new urban" community between the reservation boundary and Durango. To help launch it, the tribe donated land for a new Durango hospital, to serve as an anchor for as many as 2,200 new residential units. The tribe's net worth now stands at somewhere between $3.5 billion and $14 billion.
The tribe also has its own environmental standards, which are as strong as or stronger than state or federal regulations, and it is on the brink of getting federal approval for its sovereign air quality code. The first of its kind in the U.S., the code will empower the Southern Utes to tighten air-quality standards and administer permits under the federal Clean Air Act. The tribe has put parts of the reservation off-limits to all drilling, and it's partnered with Solix Biofuels to create an algae-to-biofuel facility on the reservation. It took control of the tribal medical clinic in order to improve care, built a state-of-the-art recreation center, and has a groundbreaking Ute language program in its school. The Southern Ute Community Action Program runs alcohol and substance abuse treatment centers, a senior center, and job-training programs. Every member has the option of accepting a full college scholarship from the tribe. And the Southern Utes continue to follow older traditions such as the Bear and Sun Dances, which draw huge crowds each summer.
Yet a small contingent of rebels, while generally happy with the benefits brought by wealth, is not pleased by the direction "the Plan" is taking the tribe. The rebels have launched efforts to recall the tribal council in recent years. Tribal elders James Jefferson and Orville Hood lead the opposition, while Sage Remington, a longtime tribal gadfly, offers philosophical support. Jefferson believes that the tribal council is being "taken for a ride" by its white managers and advisers. Similar accusations have dogged the leadership team since the 1990s. Nor are they limited to the Southern Utes: When Jurrius went on to help Utah's Northern Utes create their own energy company and financial plan a decade ago, he was eventually criticized by one branch of that tribe for trying to take control of tribal matters and getting rich in the process. He and his staff received $62,500 per month from the Northern Utes, plus $1 million for every $10 million he earned for the tribe, according to the Salt Lake Tribune; the Northern Utes ended up kicking Jurrius out and suing him. (That case was settled out of court.)
More specifically, Hood and Remington believe that the Southern Utes' off-reservation energy exploration ventures are folly, for both economic and environmental reasons, especially in the Gulf of Mexico in light of the BP disaster. Hood, citing information provided by a former employee of the tribe's financial branch, claims that the tribe lost $573 million on off-reservation energy exploration between 2002 and 2008.
It's difficult to verify such claims because the tribal government is veiled in secrecy. "Theoretically, we're all supposed to be stockholders in all of this," says Remington. "But we're not. We reap financial benefits, but that's about it. Our finances are like a Swiss bank account. We don't know what's going on."
Nor does the press. Over the weeks spent reporting this story, High Country News made repeated attempts to interview either a Southern Ute tribal council member or a high-level employee. The only response was a terse letter saying the tribal government had "decided not to participate at this time." Other journalists covering the tribe get the "no comment" treatment often, especially amid the recent political turmoil. And tribes are generally not subject to states' open records laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act. "We still feel like we're walking on a very narrow road, and there's a lot of reluctance to allow the outside world to look at us," says CERT's Lester. "Sometimes, the Southern Utes are reluctant to talk to me. And I respect … their right to control that dialogue."
Remington is less charitable: "They (current tribal leaders) are very secretive. They never give out interviews. No one can speak logically or reasonably to the press, because they might commit a faux pas or something and perhaps give out the wrong information."
Lester and off-the-record sources within the tribal administration say the secrecy is a reaction to biased or incomplete news coverage in the past. When the outside press covers the Southern Utes, it tends to emphasize the pitfalls of wealth, including the political infighting. The implication is clear: Those savages can't handle money any better than they can handle liquor. Yet the problems supposedly brought by prosperity -- crime, drugs, alcohol, greed, loss of culture and corruption -- existed long before the money started pouring in, perhaps to a greater extent. And the tangled politics and bitter accusations mirror the problems in many small towns, whether wealthy or not.
"Despite all of our differences," says Remington, "I see a great future for the tribal membership, because we are educating our young people, sending people to college to get Ph.Ds." Jefferson, Remington and Hood are a case in point. All three grew up on the reservation, then went off to college; Jefferson earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Arizona and taught school; Remington, who is gay and was "listening to opera at age 10," went to the University of California-Berkeley and became a community organizer in Denver's Chicano, black and Native neighborhoods before returning to the reservation; Hood attended the University of California-Los Angeles law school for a while and then worked for the BIA for 30 years.
Hood is one-quarter Southern Ute -- enough to qualify him as a tribal member -- and one-half Navajo. A lot of Southern Utes are of mixed ethnicity and race; hundreds are even part African-American, descended from John Taylor, a black soldier who married a Ute named Kitty Cloud in the late 1800s. This diversity has become another tribal strength.
"We reap a lot of benefits," Remington says, "but that doesn't mean we have to be compliant. We have to question authority. We are Ute. Not Anglo."