Gov’t-to-gov’t relationships key to tribal success

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe prides itself on its good working relationships with local, state and federal government agencies, but there’s still much work to be done toward developing those relationships to reach tribal goals.

That was the message from Acting Chairman James M. Olguin in an interview with the Drum on Monday, April 28. While some bonds are closer than others, all are important in helping the tribe protect and advance its members’ interests, he said.

Olguin broke down for the Drum each of the tribe’s key intergovernmental relationships and the biggest current issues on which each is a partner with the tribe.


Local towns and cities

By the location of its headquarters, the tribe is naturally most closely connected with the Town of Ignacio. Olguin said recently, the two have shared a common concern: the dearth of in-town housing. It’s important to the town for a variety of reasons, but primarily to the tribe because many employees, including potential new hires, would like to live closer to work.

“We employ a lot of people, but one of the big questions now is ‘Where do they live?’ ” he said. “The big picture is we have to start working with our local government here to see what we can do to bring housing.”

The issue affects not just tribal employees, but also employees of those organizations with which the tribe routinely works, such as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Southern Ute Agency in Ignacio, Olguin said.

“We’re assisting the agency in finding good-quality candidates, but the question now is going to be ‘Where do they live?’ ” he said.

Another key relationship is with the City of Durango. As the city closest to the reservation, it offers unique opportunities for the tribe – such as a potential hub for commercial development, which the tribe has begun to invest in heavily at its Three Springs development, Olguin said.

“Now we’re developing in the city limits of Durango, especially Three Springs,” he said, adding that the city and its new mayor, Sweetie Marbury, seem eager to engage. “I think she’s open to a positive relationship with the tribe.”

Historically the tribe has had less interaction with two other nearby towns, Bayfield and Pagosa Springs, but Olguin said that should change.

“I think it’s just a matter of us talking to them,” he said. “Bayfield is less than a mile from the reservation line.”


Local counties

Zooming out a bit, the next level of government with which the tribe works is counties. Recently, the tribe and La Plata County celebrated a victory of collaboration when the two parties signed a global right-of-way agreement Wednesday, April 9 that granted the county permission to regulate traffic on county roads on tribal lands.

“We may be the first tribe and county … to actually have a global right of way in Indian Country,” Olguin said at the signing.

Olguin said the tribe has a positive working relationship with La Plata – it’s worth noting that one of the three county commissioners, Julie Westendorff, is a former Southern Ute tribal prosecutor – and the tribe should strive to build something similar with Montezuma and Archuleta counties.

“Why reinvent the wheel with Archuleta when we’ve kind of forged the path for La Plata and the tribe to work together?” he said.


State of Colorado

On the state level, many in Indian Country view Colorado’s relationship with Indian tribes as a model to be followed. The Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs is a state-sponsored entity headed by Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia that hosts quarterly meetings with leaders of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes and state department heads. The commission’s current executive director is Ernest House Jr., a Ute Mountain Ute tribal member.

But Olguin said the tribe could be doing more with the commission to affect meaningful change, rather than just getting together to talk every few months.

“To me, it seems like we should be doing more with that organization,” he said, “[to] really use CCIA to the benefit of the tribes.”

One step toward strengthening the bond is in the works: Gov. John Hickenlooper is slated to visit the reservation Friday, May 30 to sign into law a bill codifying various tax practices as they relate to tribal members, Olguin said. It would be the first time, to either party’s knowledge, that a Colorado state governor has visited an Indian  reservation to sign a bill.

“We’re going to give him a brief tour and highlight for him what the opportunities are,” Olguin said. “The governor needs to see this. He’s got another corner of the state where, from a business perspective, we’re doing a lot.”


Federal government

The tribe interacts with a number of federal agencies regularly – but, Olguin said, because of its prosperity its success doesn’t depend on federal resources as heavily as many other tribes.

“The comment is ‘Well, Southern Ute’s the leader,’ ” he said. “Now that more and more people are saying it, it’s becoming part of our vocabulary.”

Over time, the tribe has entered into contracts to assume oversight of many of its own services, from law enforcement to health care, for which other tribes still depend on the federal government. But that doesn’t mean the tribe has no expectation of help; statutory duties that belong to the BIA and other agencies are still important, he said.

Olguin said the council has worked closely with BIA Southern Ute Agency Superintendent John Waconda on the services the BIA provides, but there’s room for improvement. He said the tribe is willing to share expertise to facilitate BIA fulfilling its duties going forward.

“There’s a huge opportunity for him to bank on the tribe, to help him help us,” Olguin said. “That relationship will have to be built to preserve what little amount of momentum we’ve got.”

In Washington, D.C., the tribe has become increasingly active in voicing its positions regarding legislation that would have consequences not just at home, but across Indian Country. Tribal Council members have provided written and spoken testimony in the halls of Congress on a number of issues, from eliminating unnecessary layers of bureaucracy to supporting hydraulic fracturing in oil wells.

“Having those types of relationships with people on the hill, whether it’s energy or whether it’s agriculture” is key, Olguin said. “We need to really get out there and use our opportunities.”

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