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'Tired of broken promises': Ute leaders call on state to follow through on Tribal commitments

Traditional drums rang through marble-clad halls as members of Colorado’s two Native American Tribes – the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute – gathered Friday morning for Ute Day at the State Capitol.

The group soon moved to the House floor, where Tribal leaders delivered their second-annual State of the Tribes address to a joint session of the legislature. After briefly praising the state government’s Tribal engagement efforts, they also called on officials to follow through on their promises.

“Colorado, like many states, has a turbulent history with tribal governments, which includes broken promises, and ignored treaties. The Southern New Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Indian Tribe have worked hard over the past decades to overcome that difficult history,” Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Melvin J. Baker said in his address. “But I am here today to tell you that we are in danger (of) damaging that relationship because of the actions of a few individuals who would rather dishonor our longstanding commitments for the short term gain.”

Baker and Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart repeated many of the same concerns they expressed last year, including state gambling laws that prevent Tribal participation in sports betting and a need for increased state support for health care infrastructure, education, and Tribal water rights.

Sports betting

When voters legalized sports betting in Colorado through Proposition DD in 2019, they also approved a state tax on sports betting, with most of the revenue dedicated to water conservation and other water-related projects.

Tribes do not pay state taxes on gambling revenue, however, and federal law requires they use gambling proceeds for Tribal services. In-person sports betting is allowed at the Tribes’ casinos – the Sky Ute Casino Resort in Ignacio and the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel in Towaoc – but they have not been able to implement online sports betting. They have been blocked from working with the state’s authorized sports betting operators because of the Tribes' different tax structure and dedicated uses for gambling proceeds.

Both tribes entered into agreements with the state in 1995 allowing them to operate “any or all Class III gaming that is permitted within the State for any purpose by any person, organization or entity, now or hereafter.” Class III games include those commonly played in casinos like blackjack, roulette, craps and slot machines.

Gambling and casinos are vital drivers of Colorado’s Tribal economies. In last year’s address to the legislature, the chairmen said their Tribes were never consulted when Proposition DD was crafted. According to Southern Ute Chairman Baker, Gov. Jared Polis promised last year that he would work with the director of the Division of Gaming on the problem.

“Enough is enough. We are tired of broken promises,” Baker said. “When I addressed this body last year, I made one request that the state resolve this issue. We met with the governor. He assured us that under the new director, one of the policy priorities would be to visit the Tribe and to resolve this issue.”

Baker said the lack of progress drove the Tribes to turn to the legislature to solve the problem. They are working on a bill with Senate Majority Leader Robert Rodriguez to close the sports betting equity gaps. Rodriguez said the bill is in its early stages and may not be introduced before the end of this legislative session in early May.

“We're working on a draft with the governor's office and with the sports betting groups,” Rodriguez told KUNC. “One part of the bill either upsets the governor’s office or one part of the bill upsets the sports betting group. Still trying to figure out if we can get some alignment. So the bill’s not ready for introduction quite yet.”

The governor’s office said it has engaged with the Tribes about sports betting, but the parties have not yet been able to find a solution.

“From increasing access to broadband, protecting Colorado’s environment and water, and sports betting, we remain committed to strengthening our partnership and delivering real results,” Eric Mayurama, a spokesperson for Gov. Polis, said in a statement. “The state has continued to have conversations with the Tribes about these important issues and looks forward to the work ahead and has provided the Tribes with sports betting options that they have declined.”

Health care, education and water

Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Heart said investments in Indian Country continue to be insufficient, especially when it comes to health care, education and water access.

The Ute Mountain Ute reservation is tucked into the remote southwestern corner of the state, with tribal members scattered across its 931 square miles. The reservation’s clinic, run by the Indian Health Service, is chronically understaffed and the nearest hospital is in Cortez, about 15 miles to the north.

Heart said the understaffing, long distances and transportation challenges lead to infrequent check-ups, which in turn can cause long-term health issues, especially for patients with diabetes. When left unchecked, diabetes can advance to the point that a patient requires dialysis or amputations. Heart called on the state to create a program that employs full-time health care professionals to conduct in-person visits on the reservation.

“We need prevention and education for these clients, our Tribal members, before they go into a stage of amputation of their limbs,” Heart said in his address to lawmakers on Friday. “When a client gets to a point of amputation, then they lose hope from the lack of mobility. A majority of them eventually give up due to their challenges and their new limited conditions in their life.”

Heart also discussed his hopes for expanding education options on Tribal land beyond the Ute Mountain Ute reservation’s one charter school that serves 56 students from kindergarten to third grade.

The school already teaches Ute language and history, and there are plans to expand the curriculum and enroll more students. Ultimately, Heart wants to build a larger school offering classes through twelfth grade and, eventually, a junior college and vocational trade school.

Those plans are a long way off, though. Heart said they will require long-term investment from the state and other sources to overcome significant barriers. Finding and retaining teachers continues to be a challenge, as it is in many schools, and the tribe would need to upgrade transportation options to make sure Tribal members can get to class.

Heart also stressed the need to follow through on the Tribes’ historical water rights. Over a century ago, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe was granted a share of the water in Lake Nighthorse, a reservoir south of Durango and about 50 miles away from the Tribe’s reservation. No delivery system was ever built to get that water to the Tribe.

“We cannot change the past wrongs that happened, but we can learn from them today,” Heart said. “We can understand what changes are needed and advocate for new amendments that need to be brought forward. We must, and we should, have a common vision and a goal.”

Heart also called for better water measurement and tracking systems, and for continued tribal representation in the ongoing debate over water distribution plans for the Colorado River Basin.

Lucas Brady Woods