IGNACIO – The first woman to be elected to the Southern Ute tribe’s top leadership post, Pearl Casias was sworn in as chairwoman Wednesday before a hopeful crowd of tribal members who said they want to see division in the membership and among its leaders come to an end.
“We’re at a historical moment today, with a new chairwoman to bring unity,” said Tribal Councilor Jim Newton Jr.
Casias campaigned with a platform focusing on unity, fiscal stability, tribal employment, housing and education against four other candidates in the special election, held Tuesday. Among those who ran against her was Matthew Box, the chairman who resigned amid allegations of mismanagement and created the leadership vacancy.
Immediately after taking the oath of office, Casias announced appointments to key leadership positions in the tribe’s government. Those vacancies also were created amid the management turmoil and a small string of resignations.
Casias returned Andrew Frost to the post of executive officer. Frost resigned from his appointment to the same job days before Box resigned. Frost said the resignation surrounded his disagreement with some of Box’s decisions.
“The past few months have been turmoil for the entire tribe,” Frost said, adding that he has since put those events behind him, and he accepted Casias’ appointment “without hesitation.”
Casias also named Tribal Council member Mike Olguin as her vice chairman.
Olguin called the decision a “total surprise” and an “honor.”
Casias didn’t share her appointment plans with voters, or even her family, before her election as chairwoman.
Tribal members, leaders from other area Native American tribes and officials from government agencies that work with Southern Ute tribal leaders attended the ceremony.
Many stood to speak at the event, expressing a desire to see the tribe’s leadership stabilize and prosper in the months ahead. Others lauded her past accomplishments and plans for the tribe’s future.
“You bring knowledge and history (to the job), and that’s very important,” said former Chairman Howard Richards. “That wisdom can move us forward.”
Richards also spoke of the significance of her historic election as the tribe’s first woman leader and the potential impact it could have on tribal youths.
“You’ve set a milestone for our young women,” Richards said.
Casias will retain the position of chairwoman until November, when the tribe’s next general election is scheduled. She hasn’t yet announced whether she’ll campaign to hold the post in that election.
For now, Casias said her schedule is filling with the vast amount of work needed to restore “unity” in the tribe’s membership and leadership. She also promised more transparency for tribal members.
“We are going to be upfront and will do things on top of the table,” Casias said.
Among the pressing issues Casias plans to tackle first is employment on the reservation.
“There are many tribal members with (college) degrees who are not working,” Casias said. “I’m concerned.”
She hopes to prop up tribal programs that enable members to go to college and “scrutinize the reasons” behind some tribal members’ recent inability to land jobs within the tribe’s government and business operations despite their educational successes.
Casias also urged tribal councilors to evaluate their work in recent months and find renewed motivation in the promises each made when they took the oaths of their elected offices.
She said tribal members showed in recent months that they have high expectations for their leaders and are not afraid to exercise their right to take to the polls and make changes when problems arise. Tribal members need their leaders to do “everything they can” to improve their lives today and the lives of the tribe’s future generations, she said.
“This is a journey for all of us,” Casias said. “As a tribal membership, we are a family, and we need to work in a unified manner.”