Utah and the Ute Tribe are at war

  • Existing reservation lands and land claimed by Utes in Utah

    Diane Sylvain
  • Teepe and mountains drawing

    Daine Sylvain

It all began with Abraham Lincoln and a promise. In the midst of history's greatest test of presidential mettle, Lincoln took time in 1861 to establish the Uintah Valley Reservation for the Ute Indians in Utah.

Before he wrote the order, however, the federal government asked Mormon leader Brigham Young if the Uintah Valley was appropriate for a reservation. Young reported that the land was so utterly useless that its only purpose was to hold the other parts of the world together. In other words, it was perfect for an Indian reservation.

Congress then passed a law that declared the new reservation was "for the permanent settlement and exclusive occupation" of the Ute Indians. In 1882 Congress authorized an addition, which created a homeland for the Utes of over 4 million acres. Finally, the Utes in Utah had a refuge from Anglo settlers.

Or so it seemed. Today the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation is one-fourth its original size. In a series of unilateral land takings by the U.S. Congress, the reservation was gradually reduced piece by piece in the early part of this century. Beginning at the turn of the century, parts of the reservation were allotted - carved into individual chunks of land - and much of the remaining land was sold as "surplus," including the best agricultural lands along the Duchesne River. Then the far western portion of the reservation was taken to build Strawberry Reservoir. At about the same time, the northern tier of the reservation was taken to create a national forest; today these former Ute forest lands comprise most of the High Uintas Wilderness Area.

Today, we are still breaking promises to the Utes. In 1965 the federal government and the Central Utah Water Conservancy District signed an agreement with the tribe. It said the Central Utah Project would proceed, using water from the reservation; in return, the tribe would receive a project for the reservation. The CUP went forward, but the Ute Indian project was never built (HCN, 3/30/87; 7/15/91). It took the government nearly 30 years to admit it had defrauded the Ute Tribe.

In recent years, the federal government has tried to resolve conflicts through consensual negotiations, rather than by imposing unilateral decisions. This has resulted in a dozen Indian water settlements and several land settlements.

In the 1980s, the state of Utah, federal representatives and the Central Utah Water Conservancy District began negotiations with the Northern Ute Tribe to settle outstanding water claims and compensate the tribe for the government's failure to live up to the 1965 water agreement. The negotiations bore fruit with the passage by Congress of the CUP Completion Act in 1992. It provided for completion of the giant water project and included a settlement of Ute water claims.

But the Ute settlement must be approved by both the state legislature and a tribal referendum, and thus far the tribe has not scheduled a vote on the proposed water compact. The vote hasn't been scheduled because of the distrust created by the broken agreements of the past. At a meeting called to explain the compact, an elderly Ute woman told the tribe's attorneys:

"You're like a rattlesnake on a hot rock. You've got the forked tongue."

Given the history of their reservation, it is understandable why some of them feel this way. But the Utes need not recall their past to be suspicious of Utah.

While negotiators were working on the water settlement, Utah was attempting to gain jurisdiction over 2.9 million acres of land within the exterior boundaries of the reservation. In 1985, in a case titled Ute Indian Tribe vs. State of Utah, a federal court ruled that the tribe had jurisdiction over all lands within the exterior boundaries of the reservation. These were the lands the tribe once owned but had lost in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The state refused to accept that verdict, and challenged the case in 1989, when Robert Hagen, an Indian (but not a Ute), was arrested by Anglo police. Hagen's arrest occurred in a town that is outside the current boundaries of the reservation, but within the exterior boundaries of the original Ute reservation. Hagen's attorney argued that the state had no jurisdiction over Indians anywhere within these exterior boundaries.

The Supreme Court of Utah rejected Hagen's argument, and held that the opening of the reservation - when white settlers were invited to buy lands on the reservation - meant that all such lands had been returned to the public domain and were no longer part of Indian country. Therefore, Utah had legal jurisdiction over the opened land within the boundaries of the original reservation. In February of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that opinion, handing the Ute tribe a devastating defeat.

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