Wide-ranging discussions across time and distance were the rule at the spring meeting of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA), but the focus was on the educational and other needs of today’s Ute Tribes and on support for federally funded Native nonresident tuition costs at Fort Lewis College (FLC) in Durango, Colorado.
Before the CCIA meeting, the Ute bands that originally inhabited present-day Colorado were honored in the General Assembly by a Senate Joint Resolution that recognized their “vital contributions to government, medicine, education, religion, architecture, the environment and the military” as well as in the creation of jobs and financial sustainability, and it committed to working with them on a government-to-government basis.
The General Assembly also confirmed Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who heads the CCIA, as director of the state’s Department of Education. He chaired the CCIA gathering April 26 of the Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Northern Ute Tribes that met with state and local government officials and other interested parties.
FLC President Dene Kay Thomas spoke to the CCIA about the legislation introduced by U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Colorado Democrats, which would use federal dollars instead of dwindling state funds to reimburse the cost of out-of-state Native students’ tuition—about $10 million last year.
The CCIA joined the Native American Rights Fund, National Indian Gaming Association, and National Congress of American Indians in voting to support the legislation to pay tuition for out-of-state Native students, who in 2010 were 668 out of 786 American Indian students at FLC. While the federal contribution would be capped at 2010-11 levels, nonresident students could exceed the present number and the state would pick up their tuition cost, Thomas explained.
Harking to the past, Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council member Manuel Heart noted that the Brunot Treaty of 1864 reserved 3 million acres of southwestern Colorado for the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Tribes as a hunting area, but present-day cities and towns have diminished the acreage and “it should be 3 million acres—we want to be able to add more animals, as it was our right.” The Utes should also “have the right to fish any stream as long as they have a tribal ID,” he said.
Contemporary educational needs beyond FLC occupied much of the CCIA’s meeting, especially in light of the state’s 68 percent dropout rate for Indian students, as noted by Carol Harvey, CCIA executive secretary.
Garcia described a major state initiative to provide more Native teachers and to address American Indian curriculum needs, and Heart said the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe hoped to “grow our own teachers who will know who we are and where we came from.”
Gary Hayes, Ute Mountain Ute tribal chairman, cited other familiar topics—needed repairs on the road from Cortez to the tribal headquarters in Towaoc, and the “white tape” that sometimes stymies attempts to work with federal agencies, as well as a need to meet a $2.8 million shortfall for the tribe’s clinic to overcome a situation in which more federal healthcare funds go to prison inmates than to tribal members.
Not all was about unmet need. Newly elected Southern Ute Indian Tribe chairwoman Pearl Casias discussed the way in which her tribe was able to partner with Catholic Initiatives to build a state-of-the art medical facility, while Irene Cuch, of the Ute Tribe, Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Utah, said a new initiative concerning enrollment criteria may raise membership from 3,200 to “4,000 strong.”
Ron Wopsock, of the Ute Tribe business committee, returned to the past briefly: “Hopefully, one day Colorado will welcome part of our people back,” he said, referring to the removal of some bands to the Uintah and Ouray area after a battle in northwestern Colorado in 1879. But he also noted that 88,000 acres of oil shale land have been restored to the tribe.