A tribal nation with what could be North America’s strictest enrollment criteria may soon decide on more flexible rules that might, if adopted, increase the tribe’s current 3,000-plus membership.
A pending election could lower the 5/8 Ute Indian blood degree requirement for membership in the Ute Indian Tribe, Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Fort Duchesne, Utah [“Northern Utes”], which occupies some 1.3 million acres of trust land containing significant oil and gas deposits.
The tribe’s governing Business Committee has voted to call for a Bureau of Indian Affairs-administered Secretarial Election on a proposed constitutional amendment to the enrollment criteria. The proposed amendment resulted from a petition signed by a “large number of tribal members” calling for change, according to a tribal press release.
The petition represents the position of tribal members who hope to allow increased enrollment, sources said.
But, “contrary to rumors that have been circulating, the Business Committee did not take action to open enrollment or enroll any other members of the tribe at this time,” the release states.
Instead, what the Business Committee termed “this important issue” will be put to a vote of the membership of the Ute Indian Tribe at an unscheduled future date.
Valentina Sireech, Northern Ute, who works in economic development for the tribe, described by phone the main issues involved in the vote on both sides. For one thing, she said that with the current enrollment rules, the tribe’s population could shrink.
“We’re financially stable and we’re giving our people identity,” she said of the tribe, “but if we’re financially able to do that, we should be sure to give the kids their identity. As some say, though, if we’re not able financially to do that, maybe we can’t.”
The kids she mentions are children who may have a parent of full Ute heritage but who lack by an eighth degree the quantum required, or children of full Indian heritage who lack the required 5/8 Ute quantum.
The tribe’s current chairperson was not immediately available for comment, but Curtis Cesspooch, a former chairman of the Northern Ute Business Committee, began working toward wider enrollment three years ago.
Contacted in connection with the upcoming election on enrollment criteria, Cesspooch said the enrollment issue will not be settled until after current voting to elect three out of six council members, but he described existing enrollment problems as he sees them.
“Our constitution requires that a person must have at least 5/8 Ute Indian blood. We have children who are all ‘Indian’ but [do] not have the required blood quantum of 5/8 Ute blood and cannot be enrolled in any tribe right now,” he said. “In some instances, the child has both parents enrolled but still can’t make the blood quantum!”
He said he and others don’t know exactly how the proposed enrollment amendment will read, but “the term ‘open’ enrollment can be misconstrued to read that any child with Ute blood will be enrolled, which many tribal members object to.”
Since the tribe has one of the strictest enrollment requirements, they will be “harder and harder to meet” as time goes on, so a constitutional amendment will have to be considered, he said.
Another, related issue of children and others not being eligible for enrollment has been in the courts since the 1954 Ute Partition Act, which divided Ute Indian tribal assets according to those of full descent and those of partial descent under the federal government’s attempt to divest itself of supervisory responsibility over tribes and to hasten assimilation.
Those determined to be of full descent under the Act comprised those with at least “one-half degree of Ute Indian blood and a total of Indian blood in excess of one-half” while the “mixed-blood” group included those without “sufficient Indian or Ute Indian blood to qualify as a full-blood tribal member” or those who chose that designation under the Act’s provisions.
Repeated attempts have been made by some of the “terminated Utes” to obtain Ute Indian Tribe membership, but whether proposed amendments to the enrollment criteria will affect them would depend on provisions of the amendments themselves.
The Business Committee pointed out that the Secretarial Election is administered by the BIA, not the Ute Indian Tribe, and is conducted by a secretarial election board composed of the local BIA official or designated representative acting as chairperson, and at least two representatives appointed by the Business Committee.