Tribe’s dilemma: Splitting $43 million

Ute Mountain Utes could distribute or invest it

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe is abuzz with both hope and concern about how to spend a $43 million windfall stemming from a recent court settlement.

Since news broke that the Ute Mountain Utes would receive $42.6 million as a part of a $1 billion settlement with the federal government over the mismanagement of tribal money and trust lands, tribal leaders have held several meetings to discuss different options for the money. Meetings were held this week in Towaoc and Ignacio.

The Ute Mountain Utes are among 41 Native American tribes set to receive cash from the settlement, which was announced April 11.

Chatter about the money quickly fanned out across Twitter and Facebook after the announcement. And tribal members began circulating petitions and proposals outlining how the money should be distributed.

One proposal shared with The Durango Herald offers a three-pronged approach for distributing the money. It suggests splitting a portion of the money equally among tribal members, putting a portion back into the tribal organization and investing the rest.

The tribal council is expected to consider those proposals in the near future.

Frustrations already have arisen because some tribal members expect the money immediately.

Some members need immediate financial assistance, Peter Ortego, chief counsel for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, told Colorado Public Radio in an interview this week.

“There’s a real urgency for some tribal members to receive funds” either in the form of direct payments or immediate services, Ortego said.

Others told The Durango Herald they want the money doled out directly to members because they don’t trust tribal leadership to handle the money wisely.

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe has about 2,000 enrolled members. A direct disbursement could mean about $21,000 for each member.

The members said the tribe’s leaders have made, and continue to make, bad investments with the tribe’s money. The tribe has repeatedly subsidized and invested in failing businesses, they said.

They fear the new infusion of money could quickly be lost if similar investment strategies are used.

“If we invest this (settlement) money, how can we be sure the investments will be wise when the leaders aren’t making wise investments today?” asked one Ute Mountain Ute member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But handing out cash is a prospect that also worries some members and tribal leaders.

The money cannot grow for the tribe’s future with that approach, they said. And tribal leaders pointed out there could be unintended consequences.

For instance, it could jeopardize some elderly tribal members’ eligibility for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security insurances, they said.

And Ortego said tribal members aren’t the only ones who need cash. The organization also could use an infusion of money for centralized services, programs and government.

“We have to find the right balance,” he said.

The tribal council has the option to decide as a governing body how to handle the money, or it can put the issue to a general vote among members.

Information about whether settlement documents contain stipulations about how the money can be used or when the funds will be disbursed to the affected tribes was not available Friday.

The settlement doesn’t make the Ute Mountain Ute tribe “whole” after losses from the years of federal mismanagement of their land and resources, Ortego said.

And many tribal members are left wondering how things might be different for the tribe today if it had the money years ago when it should have.

Tribal members have long wanted to build a school on their reservation. They also have been unable to improve health care for members.

“Indian Health Services has not always done a very good job of meeting the health care needs of Indians,” Ortego said.

Undoubtedly the money will help the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and its members in some ways, if not many. But Ortego said the settlement only scratches the surface of the tribe’s overall trust and mismanagement issues with the federal government.

It’s a point Tribal Chairman Gary Hayes tried to illustrate as he spoke during the public unveiling of the settlement agreement.

“We still have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us. We have a huge mountain to climb,” Hayes said.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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