Ernest House Sr., long-term Chairman and Council member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in southwestern Colorado, passed September 17 after a motorcycle accident near his home as he returned from a motorcycle rally in Window Rock, Arizona.
His son, Ernest House Jr., said the family was grateful for an outpouring of prayers and support from tribal leaders and friends across the country, for an honoring conducted by the New Mexico state legislature and for condolences offered by the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA).
The accident that took House Sr.’s life occurred when a motorist tried to pass another vehicle and struck him head-on, his son said. The young driver remained at the scene of the accident, which is under investigation, and House Sr. was alert and talking to paramedics before he was taken to the hospital with internal injuries.
The CCIA in a letter of condolence noted that “the Honorable Ernest House Sr. honored the proud legacy of his grandfather, Chief Jack House, through service and leadership at the local, state and national levels and as a representative for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. He also served his Nation proudly as a member of the Special Forces (Airborne) Group.”
The remarks were from Colorado Lt. Gov. Joseph A. Garcia, CCIA chairman, and Carol Harvey, CCIA director, to Gary Hayes, current Ute Mountain Ute chairman.
House Sr., 65, received accolades and applause at a quarterly CCIA meeting he attended early this year, the last meeting he attended in his official capacity as Ute Mountain Ute tribal chairman, when he recalled working in natural resources development, law enforcement, issues concerning the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, and in other areas.
He served a total of 37 years in several capacities on the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council, including more than a decade as tribal chairman, in what was apparently anyone’s lengthiest term as a Ute Mountain Ute tribal official. He began his tribal service in 1979.
As chairman, House Sr. created the Tribal Epidemiology Center in New Mexico, testified in Congress on the Dolores and Animas-La Plata water projects, and oversaw the completion of several building projects on the reservation.
Gaming was a major issue during the years of his leadership and he shepherded the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe through uncertain times to today’s Ute Mountain Casino, one of the largest gaming and resort destinations in the Four Corners region. He also took a stand for keeping the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, near Mesa Verde, in a pristine state rather than being developed.
He said he was glad there is today a large pool of education and qualified Americans Indians and believed the world is better today than the times when he was growing up.
After attending boarding school at Towaoc and Ignacio, Colorado he served in the Army National Guard in 1966 in the artillery and Signal Corps and was in basic training at then-Fort Ord, California. He subsequently trained at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and then joined the Special Forces.
In addition to his service as tribal chairman and tribal council member, he worked for the BIA and National Park Service. He represented the tribe on national and state levels and was an advocate for young people, whom he urged to be proud of their Native heritage.
Over the years, House Sr. recalled that he had looked primarily to two mentors, the late leaders Wendell Chino, Mescalero Apache, and Roger Jourdain, Red Lake Bank of Chippewa.
“The United States, the state of Colorado, and Indian country have lost a dedicated leader and advocate who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of American Indians,” the CCIA said. “His life remains a testament to his love for and devotion to his tribe.”
A traditional wake will be held Friday and funeral services will be 10 a.m. Saturday at the Towaoc recreation center, with burial in Towaoc Cemetery beside his grandfather, Jack House, last traditional chief of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said House Sr. “expanded our thinking, challenged the status quo, and envisioned a better life for thousands of Native Americans. He was a champion to his people and a dedicated public servant. We join the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in mourning his untimely death.”