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La Plata County celebrates pivotal Southern Ute leader

Leonard C. Burch Day set for Dec. 10
In 2019, Irene Burch, widow of Leonard C. Burch, center, leads the Leonard C. Burch Walk/Run on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. This week, La Plata County designated Dec. 10 as Leonard C. Burch Day.

The La Plata County Commissioners declared Dec. 10 as Leonard C. Burch Day, starting Thursday, to celebrate the groundbreaking Southern Ute leader.

Ignacio and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe have celebrated Burch each December for years. Burch, a Tribal Council chairman for more than three decades, led the tribe to become a major economic force in the Four Corners. The county’s proclamation this week ensured he will be honored countywide for years to come.

“All of us, regardless of race or ethnicity, can look to Leonard Burch as a role model of conscientious, committed and effective leadership,” said Commissioner Julie Westendorff.

Burch was first elected to Tribal Council in 1966 and served as chairman for 32 years. Burch oversaw countless investments in education, health and social programs to benefit tribal members.

Under his leadership, the tribe invested in natural gas resources. It emerged from relative poverty to become an economic leader and the largest employer in La Plata County, according to Southern Ute records.

Members of the Tribal Council could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Burch retired in 2002 and died in 2003 at the age of 69. He was a U.S. Air Force veteran, and he spent some of his career working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“While a strong voice for tribal self-determination, he was also committed to maintaining cooperative relationships with the United States government, the state of Colorado and neighboring governments,” according to Southern Ute records.

Five U.S. presidents invited Burch to attend Indian policy conferences at the White House. He also appeared numerous times before Congressional committees. During his tenure, the tribe negotiated intergovernmental gaming compacts, water resource development and complex jurisdictional issues.

He played a key leadership role in developing the Animas-La Plata Project and Lake Nighthorse.

He received numerous awards in recognition of his lifetime achievements and contributions, including the Durango Area Citizen of the Year Award in 1997, the 15th annual Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award in 2000 and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes’ Achievement Award in 2002.

He participated continuously in the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s Sundance as both a dancer and Sundance chief, and he supported programs to preserve the Ute language and the tribe’s museum.

“He had a presence, and that caught your attention and inspired immediate respect,” said Westendorff, who knew him when he was chairman of the tribe. “I learned from Leonard Burch how to conduct yourself as a leader. It really makes me happy to have him memorialized in the county this way.”


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