Leaders of the two federally recognized Native American tribes within Colorado’s borders used part of their first annual address to the state’s General Assembly to brief lawmakers on the long history of their relations with other governments – beginning with a treaty with the Spanish more than a century before the United States existed.
“The Ute people have been here since time immemorial,” Chairman Manuel Heart of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe said. “We as the Ute people have lost a lot over time, up to the present day, 2023. ... We all claim these lands as our homelands, but let us look at the past history and what has been taken away.”
Heart and Melvin J. Baker, chairman of the Southern Ute Tribe, stressed attention to education and water issues in separate speeches to nearly 100 Colorado lawmakers gathered for a joint session of the state Legislature on Wednesday. They were the first addresses delivered under Senate Bill 22-105, a law passed last year that invites tribal representatives to give an annual address modeled on the governor’s State of the State speech.
“Today’s address marks an historic step forward in strengthening our partnership with Colorado’s Tribes and uplifting the priorities, concerns and accomplishments of those communities,” Senate President Steve Fenberg of Boulder and Majority Leader Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, both Democrats, said in a statement.
The Southern Ute and Ute Mountain tribes are headquartered on reservations in La Plata and Montezuma counties, respectively, where they were forcibly relocated in the late 19th century after a gold and silver rush in the San Juan Mountains. A third Ute tribe is headquartered on the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in eastern Utah.
In general, Baker said, the two tribes have a strong working relationship with state and local agencies in Colorado.
“When we look at other states, we often see friction between the states and the tribes within (their) borders, but not in Colorado,” he said. “Colorado is the leader among all states when it comes to honoring the tribal-state relationship.”
But both chairmen faulted lawmakers for legislative efforts that have not always taken tribal concerns and sovereignty into account, like its 2019 referral of a sports-betting measure to the statewide ballot, where it was approved by voters. Heart and Baker said their tribes weren’t consulted on the measure’s language, and have faced hurdles in setting up sports books at tribal casinos.
“There are times when you legislate that you may not remember that there are two sovereign tribes within your borders,” Baker said.
Heart praised the Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 21-116, which prohibits the use of American Indian mascots by public schools and went into effect last year. But he noted that Colorado’s curriculum standards don’t include specific teachings on the history of the Utes, and called on lawmakers to change that.
“It is important that future generations are provided with this history and knowledge,” Heart said. “Now is the time to ensure that the oldest continuous residents of this country, their history be required in the curriculum in the public education system.”
Other recent legislation passed by the General Assembly includes the creation of a new state office to investigate cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous people. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation last month launched a Missing Indigenous Persons Alert system, which was activated for the first time on Jan. 3 after the disappearance of Wanbli Oyate Vigil, a 27-year-old Denver resident who was found deceased by police two days later.
Heart said a priority for the Ute Mountain Utes is to improve the quality of education on tribal lands. The tribe’s efforts have included the opening of a new charter school in 2021, where students are taught the Ute language and other cultural traditions alongside standard elementary instruction. He spoke of the long-lasting damage caused by the boarding schools where many Native American children were sent under federal forced-assimilation policies as recently as the early 20th century.
“The boarding school era was an atrocity,” Heart said. “It had a devastating impact on three to four generations of tribal families in a very negative way, right up to today.”
Baker urged lawmakers to consult and cooperate with the Southern Ute Tribe on issues including oil and gas and clean-energy development, as well as regional water management in an age of worsening drought driven by climate change. Both tribes hold key water rights within the Colorado River system, where states, tribal governments and federal agencies are negotiating ahead of a 2026 deadline that could reshape the river’s future.
“Please remember that our most important resource is water,” Baker said. “It is essential that we work together for the protection of those water rights so they are present for future generations.”