In 1896, the Southern Utes started to fight back, using the weapons of their former enemies. A long series of lawsuits eventually brought multimillion-dollar judgments in the tribe's favor and stronger rights to water, land and hunting grounds. "With each encounter," writes Richard Young in The Ute Indians of Colorado in the 20th Century, "they became more confident in their ability to present their case and to maneuver among the various echelons of the vast and powerful federal government." Often the disparate Ute bands fought as one, but the Southern Utes were by far the most assertive.
Energy became the battlefield in the 1960s. Thanks to bad federal policy and lax oversight, many Southwestern tribes, including the Hopis and Navajos, were getting a raw deal. When a company wanted to gouge a reservation's land for coal, or drill for oil and gas, it would negotiate not with the tribe, but with the Department of Interior, which leased the land to the highest bidder. The tribes had to approve the leases but were otherwise powerless, and they generally lacked the expertise and data to make good energy decisions. The federal government managed, audited and collected royalties on the leases -- or at least it was supposed to -- without any input from the tribe in question.
Then, in 1966, the Southern Utes elected Leonard Burch -- a young leader who had done stints in the Air Force and the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- as tribal chairman. Two years later, the tribe hired Durango attorney Sam Maynes -- the son of a Silverton hardrock miner -- to be its general counsel. Burch and Maynes were already friends; they met when they played basketball against each other in 7th grade. Burch was known as a "quiet warrior," while Maynes was more like a rabid pit bull with a sense of humor. They became an indomitable team, demonstrating another distinctive Southern Ute trait -- the ability to forge effective alliances with non-Indians. (The Utes even allied with the Spanish on occasion and were close to Kit Carson, the renowned explorer who guided U.S. forces against the Navajos.)
By the time Burch and Maynes gained power, oil and gas companies had been drilling on the Southern Ute Reservation for two decades, shipping oodles of gas off the land. The tribe received less than $500,000 per year in royalties, a paltry fraction of what the oil companies were making -- and far less than it was owed. "It wasn't a level playing field," Maynes said in a 2004 radio interview, a few months before he died. "The Indians were not realizing the full potential of what they had."
Those were heady days for fossil fuels. The energy crisis brought high prices and sparked a drilling, strip-mining, oil shale frenzy. The Southern Utes -- sitting on one of the richest gas fields in the country -- could have cashed in by signing over the rights to drill the reservation. Instead, in 1974, the tribal council took Maynes' advice and imposed a moratorium on all new mineral leases. A year later, Burch and the Southern Utes joined 24 other tribal leaders to form the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, or CERT, modeled after the international OPEC cartel, to consolidate their political power.
The Southern Utes became part of a widespread transformation of federal energy policy. They used a federal grant to bring in experts to map their undeveloped energy resources along with their existing leases. They quickly realized that companies were cheating the tribe by undervaluing its gas. The Department of Interior had been lackadaisical, to say the least, in auditing and collecting royalties. This turned out to be a nationwide pattern. The general public woke up, and in 1982, in an effort to improve oversight, Congress created the Minerals Management Service and passed the Indian Mineral Development Act, which gave tribes the power to negotiate mineral leases. That same year, the U.S. Supreme Court made a favorable ruling in a case involving the Apaches, saying that tribes could levy a severance tax on oil and gas produced on their lands.
The Southern Utes rode the wave, using their newfound knowledge of their own resources and taking advantage of court rulings and the shift in federal policy. The tribe negotiated more favorable leases with outside companies and enacted a severance tax on gas production, which has since brought in some $500 million. The tribe's energy department also took over the auditing of leasing from the feds, a move made by only a handful of other tribes, which helped uncover potential cheating. Just last month, based on information from Southern Ute auditors, the feds fined BP America $5.2 million for underreporting the amount of gas it had been producing on Southern Ute lands.
"Burch and his cohorts were just -- to the finest detail -- great tacticians and strategists," says David Lester, a national leader in Native American economic development since 1969 and leader of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes since 1982. "Their motive wasn't money, although money was important to them. ... The money was a means to higher ends. It was about protecting the tribe and developing a foundation and developing a cultural community distinct from surrounding communities."