Orem • Leaders of the Ute Indian Tribe say they will no longer participate in Gov. Gary Herbert's annual summit on Native American issues — until state officials treat them as a fellow sovereign government.
Tribal representatives hand-delivered a letter outlining their position to Herbert during a morning session of the annual summit, held Thursday at Utah Valley University. In it, the Utes' Tribal Business Committee requested that Herbert direct the state Division of Indian Affairs to maintain a more co-equal, government-to-government relationship with the tribe.
The committee, based in Fort Duchesne, wrote that it hoped Herbert would work "to ensure the dignity and sovereignty of Utah's first peoples is respected" in state policy.
According to the letter, signed by Ute Business Committee Chairman Luke Duncan, the tribe began notifying Herbert of these ongoing concerns in correspondence and meetings as far back as 2011. Shaun Chapoose, a Ute Indian Tribe councilman representing the Uncompahgre Band, said the tribe felt the governor had ignored those concerns for years, and that the summit, aimed at fostering collaboration between state and tribal leaders, was no longer serving Utes' needs.
"Hopefully this gives them a message to say, 'Look, we're here.' But at the same time, we're not going to continue to do this," Chapoose said. "This is just not really doing anything good."
Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday he was surprised by the Ute tribe's withdrawal. The day before, Cox said, he'd had a productive meeting with the Ute tribal chairman, with no indication of the tribe's pending withdrawal.
"I felt we had a window where we could make progress," Cox said.
But, the lieutenant governor said, the Ute tribe has been absent from prior summits more often than not. Their attendance at this year's event to deliver their letter, he said, was a positive development.
One of eight federally recognized tribes in Utah, the Utes have an estimated 2,970 registered members, nearly half of whom live on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah.
As part of a list of grievances extending from pioneer conquest, territorial disputes, usurped water rights and the University of Utah's mascot to today's threats to Bears Ears National Monument, Chapoose pointed to Herbert's opening remarks Thursday as the latest example fueling the tribe's frustrations.
During his speech, Herbert spoke of his desire to work with the tribes to bring educational and economic opportunities to Native American children. He told the audience that just this week, he had been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on issues related to oil and gas development on the Ute Indian Tribe's reservation.
That mention rubbed the Ute tribe the wrong way, Chapoose said. The tribe has its own relationship with the federal government, he said, and doesn't need the state acting on its behalf.
"We've developed ourselves," Chapoose said. "We're well adapted to determine our own future, and we're willing to take the leap forward. We have nothing to lose, because basically the only one who is going to protect us is ourselves."
Chapoose likened the governor to an interpreter who doesn't fully understand Native American language or culture, trying to negotiate on their behalf.
"I don't need an interpreter," Chapoose said. "The Ute tribe does not need someone to interpret my words. The Ute tribe is grown up and old enough to speak for themselves.
"If anything," he added, "we know the outside society better than they know ours, because we've all gone through the public school system. We're all educated. It's time they learned the culture and the tribes within the state. And I think once they're able to learn that, the interaction would be a lot better."
Inter-governmental cooperation was a key issue at other junctures during the one-day summit.
The morning's keynote speaker, Jackie Pata, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, highlighted the importance of states and tribal entities working together toward common goals.
Pata, who is from Alaska, said in an interview she felt Utah generally included Native Americans in government affairs, compared to other states. But she said there was still room for improvement, and highlighted the importance of state officials treating tribal leaders like sovereign equals.
"Unfortunately," she said, "most people don't recognize that. It's kind of like … the unknown piece."
Problems can still arise, Pata said, when U.S. officials think of "states, local governments, and they forget tribes."
"When policy is being developed... when you think about who are the interested parties," she said, "do not forget that tribes should be at the table, just like the state, just like the local governments. "And if we do that more often," Pata said, "we won't have to deal with the fixes later, or the challenges of not being included, which create bad relationships, lack of trust and litigation."