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Ute tribes contribute to meaningful legislation

The Southern Utes and Ute Mountain Utes are the only two federally recognized tribes in Colorado. Tribal members have been working with us in the General Assembly this year to craft meaningful legislation together.

Rep. Barbara McLachlan

Last summer, several interim committees were formed to determine the most efficient way to spend the federal American Rescue Plan Act money given to each state. One committee looked at how to spend a portion on Colorado’s mental health needs, and some of that money addresses tribal behavioral health.

I am sponsoring a bill to provide a $5 million grant to the tribes for infrastructure improvements to behavioral health facilities. An existing building on Southern Ute property could be upgraded, or the tribes can work with neighboring communities to build another. The facility will be culturally responsive to the needs of the tribes, and their members will decide where to spend the money.

The American Psychiatric Association reports that of the 6.6 million Americans who self-identify as having American Indian/Alaska Native heritage, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34, and many experience co-occurring mental illness and substance-use disorder. They often live far from the health services they need, amplifying the problem even more.

Using Colorado’s one-time funds to help our neighbors’ behavioral health is money well spent.

Another bill I am running establishes the Native American Boarding School Research Program, which will work with Fort Lewis College, where the Fort Lewis Indian School was based, as well as both Ute tribes, to research the events, physical and emotional abuse, and deaths that occurred at Native American boarding schools in Colorado.

For more than 150 years, thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their communities and sent to boarding schools, including Fort Lewis. By 1926, nearly 83% of all Native children of school age were in these schools. The students were traumatized when they lost their cultural identities, endured sexual abuse and suffered the effects of major illness. Many were never seen again.

This program will consist of members approved by both the tribes and the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs to research what happened, then report back their findings, which will be made public. We hope to help heal the tribes.

A third bill requires the Legislature to invite representatives from both tribes to speak to the Joint Session of the General Assembly every year so that people throughout the state can hear about their issues. Though most of us in Southwest Colorado recognize the importance of the Ute tribes, most of our urban and Eastern Slope co-workers do not know much about their rich culture.

Finally, a fourth bill amends the state statutes, which define the local government entities or agencies eligible for state grants or benefit programs to include tribal governments or agencies, if possible. This welcomes tribal members into our communities, enhancing the opportunities to work together.

We have amazing neighbors in Southwest Colorado, and we are lucky we work well together.

Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, is serving her third term representing La Plata, Archuleta, San Juan, Ouray, Hinsdale and Gunnison counties. She has been a journalist and teacher.