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Law gives Southwest Colorado’s American Indian tribes a voice at state Capitol

Utes will be invited each year to address Legislature
Ute Mountain Utes displayed their culture during meetings and a ceremony at the Colorado Capitol. (Courtesy D’Angelo Padilla/Weenuche Smoke Signals)

Under a new law, leaders from Colorado’s two Native American tribes – the Ute Mountain Utes and Southern Utes – will annually address the Colorado Legislature.

Senate Bill 22-105 seeks to improve communication between tribal governments and the state Legislature.

The bill requires the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate to invite representatives from both tribes to give an address to a joint session of the General Assembly on an annual basis. The day will be scheduled year to year.

The bill was sponsored by two Democrats, Sen. Kerry Donovan of District 5 and Rep. Barbara McLachlan of District 59. Gov. Jared Polis signed it into law April 11.

In a proclamation, Polis declared April 11 “Ute Day at the Capitol.”

“Tribes are our partners, and they shouldn’t be left standing on the sidelines when policy is being developed and implemented,” Donovan said in a news release. “This bill provides the perfect foundation to start building that relationship (and will) address the needs of their communities.”

Representatives from all three Ute tribes – two in Colorado and one in Utah – were present at the Capitol for the ceremony.

Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart participates in a roundtable discussion April 11 about Colorado’s two Native American tribes at the state Capitol. (Courtesy D'Angelo Padilla/Weenuche Smoke Signals)
Members of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes gathered April 11 at the Colorado Capitol as part of a renewed effort to improve communication between the Legislature and the tribes. (Courtesy D'Angelo Padilla/Weenuche Smoke Signals)

“It is good to be home on our original lands. The state recognized the two Ute tribes and their sister tribe from Utah, which demonstrates the relationship between the state and the sovereign nations,” Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart said in a statement.

Tribal representatives also participated in roundtable conversations pertaining to behavioral health, Ute curriculum, education and economic development.

In his weekly address to tribal members April 18, Heart said Colorado is the first in the country to work with tribes on future legislation on a government-to-government basis.

“It is an opportunity to address the Colorado legislative body on any new bills,” he said.

Heart said in his first address at the Capitol, he gave an overview of the tribe and reservation communities, and outlined issues and concerns of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. They include:

  • Improved fence lines along state and reservation boundaries needed to keep out feral horses, which can cause damage to grazing lands depended on for ranching.
  • During hunting seasons, trespassing is becoming more common on Ute Mountain Ute tribal lands and ranches, including the Pine Crest Ranch.
  • The Brunot Treaty, which preserves hunting and gathering rights for Ute tribes, should be expanded into the Uncompahgre National Forest, which is historic Ute territory.
  • Colorado needs to raise salaries for teachers at the new Kwiyagat Community School in Towaoc to the agreed 9% increase.
  • Funding support is needed for substance abuse programs for the two Ute tribes in Colorado. A remodeling project is being considered for the Peaceful Spirit treatment center, and opening up its services for both Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute clients is being discussed.

In a statement, Southern Ute Chairman Melvin Baker said while the tribe’s relationship with the state has been positive, there are “significant areas for improvement in our relationship with the state administration and Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs.”

He said Colorado’s efforts set an example on how the U.S. and Indian Country should work together. Baker said the goals are to work with the state to create economic development, protect Native American people and natural resources, celebrate tribal culture and acknowledge traumatic histories so tribes and surrounding communities can thrive.

“To maintain the relationship, it must be nurtured, respected and true interest invested. We look forward to improving this government-to-government relationship and building a new collaboration with the state legislator,” he said.

The Ute Day at the Capitol proclamation says in part that: “The state of Colorado celebrates and honors the rich heritage of the Ute Nations whose creation originates in the mountains of Colorado as an integral part of Colorado’s history and contemporary life, providing vital contributions to culture, government, medicine, education, religion, the environment, the economy and the military.”

Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute sovereignty will be honored, the proclamation says, and Coloradans are encouraged to “actively seek knowledge about the history and heritage of the proud Ute people in Colorado’s past, present and future.”

Ute tribal flags and associated descriptive plaques are located prominently in the Colorado Capitol.


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