Rupert Steele, Goshute leader who fought to protect tribal land, culture, dies at 69

Steele long advocated for tribal land and water rights — and to prevent cultural erasure.

(Lennie Mahler | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rupert Steele, Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Indian Reservation, speaks during the opening plenary at the 2015 Parliament of the World's Religions held inside the Salt Palace Convention Center on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in Salt Lake City.

Rupert Steele, the chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Indian Reservation — who advocated for his people on many fronts — died early Thursday at age 69, according to his family.

“With heavy hearts,” Steele’s children announced his death Thursday on social media. Their father “began his journey into the Spirit World” at 1:40 a.m., the announcement read, noting that he was ”surrounded by immediate family.” There was no mention of his cause of death.

Steele had long advocated for the Goshute Tribe and others on water and land rights, protecting natural resources, and preserving tribal language, heritage and Indigenous children’s rights.

“He was an advocate for not only his tribe, but for all of Indian country, the elements and sacred lands,” according to the Utah Division of Indian Affairs. “He was a champion for many causes and, importantly, the protection of Native American children in his efforts to codify the Indian Child Welfare Act in Utah.”

Steele represented the Goshute Tribe on the Utah Tribal Leaders Committee, the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, the Utah Native American Remains Review Committee, the Utah Governor’s Snake Valley Water Advisory Committee, and served on several tribal committees, according to the Nevada Indian Commission.

The Duckwater Shoshone Tribe shared in a statement that Steele will be missed but that his legacy “will not be forgotten and the teachings he shared will echo for many generations to come.” Steele “will be remembered as a man of impact, strength, and courage,” the statement continued.

“As he joins the council of great chiefs at the creator’s side,” it read, “we know he is looking down on us with a smile.”

The Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada offered its prayers and condolences, praising Steele as a man who “touched the hearts of many and will be remembered and honored by many who respected and valued his leadership, experience and knowledge.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson issued a statement Thursday calling Steele “a spiritual leader and standard-bearer for his fellow tribal members” who “forged friendships with local, state, and federal leaders — ensuring the voice and interests of the tribe were well represented.”

Born and raised in Ibapah, in Tooele County, near the Nevada border on the Goshute Reservation, Steele’s “intimate knowledge and connection with the landscape became practical tools for his advocacy,” Cox and Henderson’s statement continued. “As a result, the chairman sought and succeeded in efforts to protect his ancestors’ traditions, sacred sites, language, and land.”

Steele advocated for the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which has protections against removing Native American children from their tribes and is currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. In November, Steele told Utah legislators that when he was a child, he and his siblings hid every time a white person came to their house out of fear that they would be taken away.

“We were afraid that we would be taken away from our family circle, too,” he said. “That fear existed for decades and decades for many Indian families across the United States.” And, he said, “The state of Utah is no exception” when it came to taking Indigenous kids away from their tribes — a form of cultural erasure. “The protection of our children is our greatest responsibility now,” he told lawmakers.

In May 2022, Steele said he wants to see the federal government address the “disastrous results” of the Native American boarding school system, “which were assimilation, economic disparities, families broken up, and unfortunately, death.”

A boarding school survivor himself, he called upon the U.S. government to “use the opportunity to rebuild American Indian communities, revitalize our languages and culture, and provide us with the resources necessary to thrive.”

In Cox and Henderson’s statement, they vowed that Utah “remains deeply committed to Chairman Steele’s efforts to codify the Indian Child Welfare Act and defend tribal sovereignty.”

According to the family, funeral arrangements will be announced once they are finalized.