The Ute Tribe’s new chairman is a bison-wrangling leader ready to defend his people and their land

Meet Julius T. Murray III, one of the youngest members to ever lead the Utes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) New chairman of the Ute Tribe, Julius T. Murray III, pictured on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023.

When Julius T. Murray III looks out over the jagged desert canyons and sagebrush-stuffed valleys of the Ute Indian Tribe’s reservation he sees a checkerboard overlaying his people’s land.

In his mind, he can picture a square to the north, where the tribe has fought to protect its ownership. In parcels to the south, he said, Utah has strategically pried away valuable pieces from the Utes. In others, he said, water has been siphoned from the tribe until the ground has been reduced to dust.

Securing this land and its resources, Murray said, has long felt like a game of moves and countermoves. Now, as the tribe’s new chairman, he said he’s prepared to play — to win.

Murray, 45 years old, is clean-shaven, with small flecks of gray in his short dark hair. He’s soft-spoken but ambitious and firm, believing that words aren’t the only way to deliver a message.

On a recent visit to Salt Lake City, he shook hands with state leaders and energy developers, with the rough calluses on his palms hard not to notice. He wore a button-up shirt with jeans that showed some wear from the boots-on-the-ground work he has done and continues to do across the rural reservation.

Before he was elected as a council member in 2021 to the Ute Business Committee, which oversees the tribe, he managed the tribe’s herd of 900 bison. That kind of work tends to be tough on a pair of Levi’s.

It also taught him about wrangling the unruly and commanding control — more so, he jokes, than the couple of political science classes he took at Utah State University.

Real politics, he said, “is way different than they teach it.”

Murray was named chairman earlier this year — chosen by the other elected council members to succeed Shaun Chapoose, who recently stepped down. He’s one of the youngest members to ever hold the office for the tribe and takes over leading the sovereign Indian nation of 3,000 members that’s the namesake for Utah.

The reservation is the second largest in the country, stretching across 4.5 million acres in the eastern Uinta Basin; only the Navajo Nation is larger.

Of course, the Utes roamed much more of the state and Colorado, before they were pushed into that corner. “We’re sitting on my ancestors’ land,” said Murray, who’s part of the Uintah Band, pointing out from the boardroom with a view of the capital’s bustling Main Street.

“We were the original people of this land,” he said. “A lot of people don’t recognize that. It’s time that they do.”

The chairman’s ‘duty’ to his tribe

Murray has seen his tribe from a kaleidoscope of perspectives.

He grew up on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, living in Ft. Duchesne where the Ute Business Committee is headquartered but which still holds the “fort” name from when the U.S. Army posted there in the 1880s.

And like the town, he’s had a foot in two worlds, with a white mother and a Ute father.

It was difficult to straddle the identities, and he learned from both. But, he said, “I chose my side a long time ago, which is my people.”

As a boy, Murray participated in tribal ceremonies and customs. And he learned Ute stories. That included beautiful legends —including that of a female bear that taught tribal members a healing dance — and heartbreaking memories of what the Utes have endured.

His dad, the late Julius “Chunky” Murray Jr., for instance, was among many Ute children forced to attend one of the two boarding schools on the reservation that were meant to assimilate young Natives. He went to the Whiterocks school where kids were beaten for speaking their language and had their sacred hair cut short.

(Uintah County Regional History Center) The late Julius Murray Jr., shown in 1990, remembered being required to work as a student at the Uintah Boarding School at Whiterocks in the 1940s.

His father didn’t like to talk much about that time, Murray said, because it was painful for him to relive. But he also didn’t want the Utes to forget about those hardships. He wanted it to make them stronger, like a broken pot that’s been reinforced at the cracks.

With that goal, Murray now follows in the path of his grandfather, Julius Murray, and great grandfather, Horatio Tecumseh Murray, who both served on the tribe’s Business Committee in the 1940s. They famously negotiated with then-U.S. President Harry S. Truman for better land and water rights.

Nearly 100 years later, Murray said the fight hasn’t changed.

“I don’t see it as a legacy,” he said. “I see it as a duty I owe to my tribe. I will do whatever I need to do to secure their future.”

At the same time, even with his heritage, the future of the tribe doesn’t include Murray’s own 10 children, who range in age from 26 years old to 9 years old. With his parents, Murray was able to meet the tribe’s 5/8 blood quantum requirement to be a registered Ute. His kids do not.

Those blood quantum numbers were initially a system put in place by the federal government meant to limit tribal citizenship. And the Utes have the highest number of any American tribe, making it harder to be considered a member.

With that, the population of “qualified” Utes will very likely dwindle in the coming years, as Murray is seeing firsthand with his family. And it’s something the tribe will have to address.

As he balances past and future, white and Native, his ancestors and his kids, Murray is focused on endurance.

Can the tribe survive? Does he have what it takes to ensure that? Does he see a clear way forward?

“Yes, yes, yes,” the chairman said.

A boon and a battle

Murray doesn’t waver on what will secure the tribe’s future: He firmly believes it’s energy development.

When the tribe was first pushed onto the area that is its reservation, it was because the land was seen as undesirable, a desert with more rattlesnakes than resources.

But underneath the dry crust, the tribe sat on a wealth of oil and gas deposits. As soon as that was realized, Murray said, the Utes started churning serious money from it.

Currently, the tribe has about 7,000 oil wells that produce 45,000 barrels a day that it sends to refineries in the basin and in Salt Lake City. And more than 95% of the Utes’ revenue — millions of dollars — comes from its energy development, according to numbers provided by the chairman.

The tribe relies on that money to support its members on the reservation. Murray saw that, for instance, when he worked as the tribe’s director of housing from 2010 to 2016, with the department using the funding to house older members or repair dilapidated structures.

He said he wants to get the best benefit possible for the Utes from oil and gas “while it’s relevant now.”

He also wants to diversify into other energy forms, including wind and solar, to sustain members in the long term. Murray declined to say more about those efforts until the plans are further along.

But the tribe’s asset of land — and the success and development from that — has also made the Utes a target of the state, he said.

Utah leaders have tried to re-seize land it now sees as valuable for the state’s own projects, he said.

“Our jurisdiction gets attacked every day,” Murray said. “The state is trying to pick it apart for what it wants.”

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, who works with Utah’s tribes in her position, declined to comment on that specifically, but said the state respects the sovereignty of the Utes.

The tribe has taken its land fights to court, and the Utes are now considered the most litigating Native American tribe in the country, Murray said. It’s both a proud title and a frustrating one.

The money the tribe has captured from its oil development has given it the resources to fight and given the Utes a voice. But at the same time, those fights eat up the funding.

The legal fights are worth it to protect the land and resources, the chairman added, and it shows that the Utes aren’t going to back down.

The way forward

Sometimes, Murray said, the game of checkers he’s playing as chairman feels like it’s against 20 different opponents all trying to beat the tribe.

The tribe is battling the state over land with oil, as well as land with cultural significance. The Utes are currently in a legal fight over Tabby Mountain, which the tribe placed the highest bid on during a 2018 auction but then the state took the land off the market instead of selling it. The tribe says discrimination was behind that.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah’s Tabby Mountain pictured on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.

The Utes are also fighting the federal government for 2 million acres of land it says were wrongfully transferred to the Bureau of Land Management instead of the tribe. And it’s fighting for water rights, too, that it says it was guaranteed but that have been reneged on.

In his few months as chairman, Murray has repeatedly called out President Joe Biden’s administration for being antagonistic to tribes where it has promised to support them.

“We now see the Biden administration for what it is, one of the most anti-Indian administrations in more than a half century,” Murray said in a statement last month when a federal court dismissed many of the tribe’s claims over water.

Biden’s administration stepped into that case — as well as a similar case with the Navajo Nation — to support the states instead of the tribes and argued the federal government doesn’t have a trust responsibility to support tribal nations.

And a federal judge similarly struck down the plans for the Uinta Basin Rail project that the Utes supported to create a rail system in the region to move oil in and out. It would’ve significantly benefited the tribe’s transports, allowing the Utes to increase production — which is largely limited by how much the Salt Lake City refineries can currently take in. The tribe could have sent oil across the nation.

Murray feels a lot of those efforts are intentional; he sees them as a way to “keep the Natives down” and stop them from advancing.

It’s the same fight, he said, the tribe faces with local school districts that aren’t supporting Ute kids. The tribe’s children repeatedly fall behind their peers in grades and graduation rates. Ute kids are regularly at the bottom of test scores, too, for any demographic in the state.

If their kids don’t succeed in school, he said, then they can’t achieve in life. And he thinks that’s the point.

Murray said he experienced the frustrations of a subpar education firsthand, attending Union and Uintah high schools but not graduating. He later got his GED.

It’s every avenue, Murray said, where he feels the tribe is set up to fail, questioning the Utes’ sovereignty, authority, jurisdiction and power.

“Every time you try to bring up the actual history of the people of this state, they call that critical race theory,” Murray said. “In the state specifically, kids are taught Utah history. But it’s just the pioneers — their successes and trials and tribulations. It doesn’t talk about the original people. They’re trying to cut us out of the picture like we don’t exist. But we do. We’re here.”

Lt. Gov. Henderson said she understands Murray’s position (Utah leaders actually supported the Uinta Basin Rail, too, and were disappointed at the resolution). And she wants to collaborate with the tribe on solutions.

“There are certainly areas where we might be able to do better, where the state can do better,” she acknowledged.

She said she’s particularly looking at ways to support the tribe in getting their kids a better education. Both Henderson and Murray said they want to work together on that. And she already resolved an issue with the county-run DMV incorrectly charging tribal members taxes on their vehicles. She says she’s committed and believes in Murray.

“I think he represents the future of the tribe,” Henderson added.

Murray said he appreciates that. He’s got a long list of priorities to work through as chairman. He pledges to not stop fighting to protect what he says belongs to the Utes — every inch of sagebrush and every mountain peak.

After all, checkers was a game invented by Indigenous peoples.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) New chairman of the Ute Tribe, Julius Murray, pictured Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023.