Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Jimmy Newton Jr. died Monday night after an extended illness, the tribe announced Tuesday.
Newton, who took over as chairman in December 2011 after serving as a tribal councilor since 2003, was 37. He leaves behind a wife, Flora Murphy, and an 18-year-old daughter, Maylon Kaye Newton.
Newton died at Mercy Regional Medical Center from an undisclosed illness, tribal spokeswoman Beth Santistevan said Tuesday.
Details about a memorial service for Newton are still being worked out, Santistevan said.
Tribal members and those he worked with outside the tribe characterized Newton as a strong advocate for the Ignacio-based Southern Utes and someone who will be deeply missed.
“The Tribal Council is stunned and grief-stricken at the passing of their young leader,” a news release on the tribe’s website said. The council expressed support for his wife, daughter and family.
“Chairman Newton served this tribe and its members for over a decade,” Vice Chairman James Olguin said in the news release. “He dedicated his career to helping his fellow Tribal Council and all enrolled members of the tribe.”
Newton had been on sick leave since mid-March.
Matthew Box, a former Southern Ute chairman, said that because of its small population – approximately 1,500 – the entire community feels a personal impact.
“We’ve been part of his visions, his travels, his growing up,” Box said Tuesday afternoon. “It will hurt and leave a void in our hearts for a while.”
The tribe no longer has a chief, so the title of tribal chairman is as close as one comes to that in this era, Box said.
“He’s a warrior. It’s a great honor for him to die in this way in the service of the people,” Box said. “The focus now is the celebration of his life.”
Tom Shipps with the Durango law firm Maynes Bradford Shipps & Sheftel, which has provided legal counsel for the tribe for several decades, said Newton was a quiet man with unique leadership skills as well as a great sense of humor.
“Jimmy was a very, very capable leader,” Shipps said Tuesday afternoon. “He got along with many elements of the tribe.”
Shipps traveled to Washington, D.C., with Newton and watched him testify to Congress about issues such as tribal sovereignty.
“He was able to move the tribe forward as a leader on the national scene,” Shipps said. “He was somebody people listened to when he spoke.”
The tribe’s constitution calls for a special election within 60 days of the vacancy to fill the office of chairman. Olguin, as vice chairman, will assume duties of chairman in the interim. Newton’s three-year term was scheduled to be up at the end of this year.
Leaders from around the area offered condolences Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado said he joined the Southern Ute Tribe in honoring Newton and his accomplishments.
“Tribal Chairman Jimmy Newton Jr. was a strong voice for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and I am proud to have worked with him and his predecessors on issues of critical importance to the tribe, such as the Pine River Indian Irrigation Project,” Udall said in a news release Tuesday morning. “Chairman Newton’s loss is one that will be felt for years to come.”
In a statement posted on Facebook, La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff said “his commitment to his people and his steady leadership will be missed.”
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado said the tribe lost a strong advocate and leader.
“As one of the youngest people to ever serve on the Tribal Council, he was an effective and dedicated leader for a new generation, and he will be greatly missed,” Bennet said in a news release Tuesday afternoon.
Newton is the son of Elaine Newton, who served as chief tribal court judge before her retirement in 2011. She now serves as judge pro-tem for the Southern Ute Courts.
Jimmy Newton earned a degree in visual graphic design from Al Collins Graphic Design School in Arizona. He returned to the Southern Ute Tribe and worked as a reporter/photographer for The Southern Ute Drum, the tribe’s biweekly newspaper.
Newton was 26 when he was first elected tribal councilor in 2003. He also served as vice chairman and was appointed acting chairman twice.