She doesn’t consider it a donation (though she jokes the IRS might look at it that way). And she doesn’t think it makes her a saint of any sort.
For Christine Sleeter, it’s simply “returning what was stolen.”
On Monday morning, the retired professor transferred a quarter of a million dollars to the Ute Indian Tribe in east-central Utah. The money, Sleeter said, came from her family inheritance — generated by her great-grandparents selling off American Indian land more than a century ago and then investing the profits.
“Rather than just keep something when it’s become pretty obvious to me where that money came from that I inherited, I would rather give it back to the people who lost that land,” she said.
Sleeter, who lives in California and used to teach classes on social justice, first discovered the land sales as she compiled her family history over the past few years, digging through archived newspapers, stumbling across letters and Googling names. All of that led her to Colorado, where her ancestors settled when they moved West.
In 1882, after striking out in the search of gold, her great-grandparents were given a 160-acre plot of farm land by the federal government under the Homestead Act. They didn’t pay much, if anything, for the property.
The grassy fields, though, had previously been home to the Ute Indian Tribe, which was forcibly removed by an act of Congress in 1881 that authorized a violent “Utes must go!” campaign.
“They wanted to get their hands on more Indian land — and that’s exactly what they did,” said Luke Duncan, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee and a descendant of White River Band members who originally lived in the area. Many tribal members, including his family, relocated to Utah at the time.
Sleeter’s great-grandparents (on her mother’s side) later sold their parcel outside of Craig, Colo., for a plot in Steamboat Springs. When they left that land in the early 1900s, the couple invested the money.
It has since been passed down three generations, landing in the bank accounts of Sleeter and her siblings.
“As a white person when you first think of that, it’s like ‘What can I do?’” Sleeter said.
She decided to turn that bit of guilt and hopelessness into action. At first, Sleeter donated some money to the Ute Indian Tribe Political Action Committee, or Ute PAC. Its director, Robert Lucero, later called her during a donation drive in May and asked how someone at California State University, Monterey Bay had found the webpage.
Sleeter, 69, explained the connection and ran her idea by Lucero to give $250,000 to the tribe — what she calls “an educated guess of what [the profits] would’ve added up to.” She’ll rely instead on retirement payments and Social Security.
“If you discovered that you had something in your house that belonged to somebody else and you knew who it belonged to, then you return it.”
On Monday, tribal leaders welcomed her to Fort Duchesne and accepted the check.
The money, Duncan said, will go toward building a new facility to replace Uintah River High School, which once was a fabrication shop for cabinets and woodwork and is now a decades-old space in a constant state of disrepair.
“It’s great that she felt that way and that she would do that. It’s something that surprised me,” he said. “She has a conscience, and I wish people had a conscience going way back.”
Sleeter toured classrooms and met with students, who Lucero said were excited by the discussion. He hopes it might encourage others to follow Sleeter’s lead.
Duncan hopes, most of all, that it might stop federal land policies that hurt tribes.
“Reservations they only shrink, shrink, shrink.”