Tribal Council advocates for tribal interests at State Capitol

Southern Ute Tribal Council, Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council, and Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee Representative Christopher Tabbee gather alongside Colorado Lt. Govenor, Diane Primavera and Tribal Royalty proceeding the Ute Day at the Capitol event on Friday, March 15.
Photo Credit: Divine Windy Boy | The Southern Ute Drum

Ute Day at the Capitol was officially designated by Governor Jared Polis in 2019 to publicly celebrate and honor the contributions and sovereignty of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and the Ute Indian Tribe. In addition, this designation encourages Coloradans to actively seek knowledge about the history and heritage of the Ute people in Colorado’s past, present, and future.  

That history has long been one of broken promises and the infringement of tribal lands and sovereignty. Agreements with the Ute bands have been dishonored for the economic gains of others. This disrespect is not a relic of a distant past, but far too often continues today. To address ongoing violations and historical injustice, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Councils traveled to Denver last week to meet with state legislators and the Governor to emphasize the importance that the State of Colorado uphold its commitment to tribal agreements, particularly those concerning tribal land. 

Friday, March 15, Southern Ute Chairman Melvin Baker gave a powerful address to the General Assembly. Baker highlighted key concerns, including Colorado’s violation of its 30-year-old gaming compact with the Tribe, efforts by the City of Durango to infringe on the Tribe’s sovereignty by annexing lands within the Reservation boundaries, and the importance of safeguarding the Tribe’s water rights.  

With respect to gaming, Chairman Baker reminded the Legislature that the Tribe’s Gaming Compact, ratified by the State Legislature, signed by the Governor, and approved by the Secretary of Interior, allows the Tribe to engage in gaming activities “that are identical to the activities and bet amounts that are authorized in the State of Colorado.” Therefore, when the State authorized statewide internet sports betting, the Tribe under its Compact was allowed to engage in statewide internet sports betting. However, the Governor failed to honor this Compact when the Colorado Department of Gaming ordered suppliers to not engage in business with the Tribe, solely to benefit non-Tribal gaming interests.  

The Tribe is entitled to engage in statewide internet sports betting in accordance with its Gaming Compact and the Chairman called upon the State Legislature to ensure that the State’s longstanding agreement with the Tribe is honored. He encouraged the Legislature to support legislation supported by Senator Robert Rodriguez, Majority Leader of the State Senate, ensuring that the State of Colorado complies with its obligations under the Gaming Compact.  

Chairman Baker further encouraged the Legislature to assist the Tribe in resisting efforts by the City of Durango to annex lands within the Reservation boundaries. He reminded the Legislature of the State’s history of seizing tribal land to support non-tribal economic interests. Chairman Baker related the City’s plans to take advantage of lands and resources within the Reservation boundaries, of which have been confirmed by federal law, to support the City’s economic interests. He described the City’s failure to collaborate with the Tribe on this issue, its disregard for the cooperative agreements with La Plata County, and how annexation will worsen the already critical Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) crisis through increased jurisdictional complexities. Chairman Baker asked that the Legislature support a bill sponsored by Senators Jessie Danielson and Cleve Simpson, House Majority Leader Representative Monica Duran, and House Minority Leader Rose Pugliese, requiring tribal consent before lands are annexed within the Reservation boundaries.  

Following the address, Tribal Council met with Governor Polis and Lt. Governor Primavera for a roundtable discussion. Once again, Tribal Council encouraged the Governor to honor the Tribe’s sovereignty and the State’s agreements with the Tribe. In May 2019, Governor Polis wrote, “In Colorado we respect our government-to-government relationship with the Tribes.”  During the roundtable discussion, he acknowledged his administration did not contact or consult the Tribe while sports betting was in the process of being implemented. Moreover, when the Governor suggested that the electorate may have supported sports betting legislation to generate revenue for the State, he was reminded that members of the two Colorado tribes had supported the legislation because it enabled the Tribes to engage in sports betting under their longstanding gaming compacts and tribal members’ votes counted as much as those of non-tribal members.  

By visiting the Capitol, the Tribal Council demonstrated their commitment to building strong relationships with state officials. Their advocacy aims to secure policies that respect the Tribe’s self-governance, to enact positive changes, and to promote prosperity for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. 

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