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Sovereignty or profit, it’s ‘complicated’

Mark Morgan

This past February I went to the Southern Ute reservation to attend a joint staff meeting. I had been Durango’s attorney for nine months. The tribe’s attorney sitting across from me stayed less than 9 minutes. In hindsight, the limited appearance and cryptic comment that annexation is “complicated” was a tell for the well-orchestrated vilification of Durango that played out at the state Capitol this spring.

The political strategy of manufacturing an enemy is very effective and it’s now clear that a false narrative was strategically developed to garner support for Senate Bill 193 regulating municipal annexations. Claims that Durango officials were “secretly plotting to steal Indian land” conjure emotions of regret and guilt over the acts of our forefathers, however they are as untrue as they are sensational.

The subject land on La Posta Road is privately owned by individuals not associated with the tribe. They acquired ownership by purchase from the tribe or patent from the federal government. The area is currently under the jurisdiction of La Plata County but within the “checkerboard” reservation boundary. That is complicated. The simple truth is, Durango never intended to own or possess this land. The city merely offered to deliver utilities and other services.

As the new Durango attorney, I attended a Southern Ute Museum tour, the blanket presentation ceremonies for outgoing tribal councilors and the inauguration of new tribal leaders, all with colleagues from the city. I was excited to work with the tribe as a kind of tribute to my deceased best friend who was a Chippewa Indian and whose family had exposed and educated me about American Indian culture.

Multiple meetings with the tribe occurred where the development of the long stymied La Posta area land was a formal topic and openly discussed. The tribe even helped fund a joint development study of the area sewer plan. Considering those facts, the accusations of nefarious intent of the city and the late filing of a bill in the legislative session shocked me and other city staff members. Shock is another effective political strategy.

Durango did not oppose the legislation and was never asked by the tribe to support it. A strategic decision had been made to vilify Durango instead of asking for cooperation on important legislation concerning tribal sovereignty. A spurious path of confrontation was recommended by the tribe lawyers over the opportunity for cooperation and education. In recent days, the tribe’s attorney has inundated the city with records requests and falsely accused the city of withholding records. Another political strategy?

A fragile trust has been lost. Joint meetings have been suspended. Opportunities to bring utilities and services to tribal trust land were sacrificed to a political strategy for legislation the city could have supported to the benefit of everyone in this region.

But why?

The growth fund of the Southern Ute tribe is a multimillion-dollar corporation that benefited from a $3.4-billion class action lawsuit against the federal government. The fund owns the land where phase two of the Three Springs housing development is slated to be constructed. Water rights for the land and the profitability of the project are currently in question. The land is outside the reservation but within city limits. The La Posta area development, targeted by the tribe’s annexation legislation included workforce housing. Workforce housing at La Posta would obviously benefit working class tribe members but have challenged the growth fund’s profits at Three Springs.

Maybe when it comes to the tribes’ corporate profits it’s not actually that “complicated.”

Mark Morgan is Durango city attorney.