SOUTHERN UTE RESERVATION – Southern Ute tribal members and community members gathered Tuesday for the eighth annual Leonard C. Burch Memorial 5K/Walk to celebrate the life of one of the tribe’s most influential leaders.
Leonard C. Burch, who died in 2003, served as chairman of the Tribal Council for 32 years. During that time, he helped transform the tribe’s economy through natural resource development and advocated for tribal matters at the federal level.
Each year, Burch’s family, friends and the larger community celebrate the tribal holiday, Leonard C. Burch Day, on Dec. 10 to honor the leader’s long-lasting impact.
“Everybody has their different opinions about the different council people. ... For me, personally, I felt he did a lot for the tribe,” said Neida Chackee, a tribal member who grew up with Burch’s family.
Under Burch’s leadership, the tribe emerged from relative poverty to become a major economic force in the Four Corners, according to the Southern Ute website. Now, it is one of the largest employers in La Plata County.
“We got a lot of benefits from all of the workings that he and the other council members did,” Chackee said.
More than 100 people gathered in the SunUte Community Center to celebrate Burch. The event, organized by the Burch family and tribal government, started with an invocation from Matthew Box, honorary drumming and singing, and a quick Zumba warm-up.
Before becoming chairman of the Tribal Council, Burch served in the U.S. Air Force for four years and worked in the realty office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He married Irene Coolidge, a Navajo tribal member, who led the memorial walk.
Burch joined the Tribal Council when he was 32. He was a strong voice for tribal self-determination and for maintaining cooperative relationships with federal, state and local governments.
Five presidents invited him to attend Indian policy conferences, according to the tribe’s website. He advocated for the tribe and Southwest Colorado numerous times in front of Congressional committees.
During his tenure, the tribe obtained federal permission to consolidate land holdings within the reservation and negotiated a gaming compact with the state government. It completed a taxation compact between Colorado, La Plata County and tribal governments. Burch also advocated for regional water resource development.
“For my generation, he was always about go to school, come back, help the tribe,” Chackee said.
Not only did Burch emphasize education, he helped lift every tribal member into better financial stability, Chackee said. For example, the policies during his tenure increased tribal member stipends and improved access to homeownership.
Burch played many roles in Chackee’s life – uncle, brother, dad. While growing up with Burch’s family, Chackee said that he was a source of encouragement and taught her how to be respectful as a teenager.
“I have respect for him because he was not only the chairman, but he was one of the Sun Dance leaders,” Chackee said. Burch was a dancer and Sun Dance chief, both important positions of spiritual leadership in the annual ceremony.
“He was always looking out for the best interests of the tribe,” said Maddie Chavarillo, a community member. She came to the walk out of respect for Burch and his family. “He was an extraordinary leader.”
Burch received numerous awards, including the Durango Area Citizen of the Year Award in 1997, the 15th annual Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award in 2000 and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes’ Achievement Award in 2002.
To those who knew him, he was a humble figure.
“Although he seemed like a quiet man, he was a bit of a jokester,” Chavarillo said, remembering a fishing trip with Burch. “He was funny and a lot of people didn’t know that side of him.”