Environment | National | Politics

Ute Tribe continues battle against 'modern day Indian land grab'






Shaun Chapoose, the chairman of the Ute Tribe of Utah, stands outside of the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., on September 27, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com / Available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Ute Tribe continues to garner support for efforts to stop a "modern day Indian land grab" from moving forward.

Chairman Shaun Chapoose is in Washington, D.C., this week, meeting with top Obama administration officials and fellow tribal leaders as the high-stakes battle rages. His target is H.R.5780, the Utah Public Lands Initiative Act, a controversial bill that transfers 100,000 acres from his people's reservation to the state of Utah.

"I have an obligation as a tribal leader to stand and protect my tribe," Chapoose said at the Interior Department -- where Cabinet officials were taking part in a meeting of the White House Council on Native American Affairs -- on Tuesday, just a day after he attended the White House Tribal Nations Conference.

Chapoose said H.R.5780 has been "rushed through the process" -- a statement borne out by recent actions on Capitol Hill. Barely a week after an emotional hearing during which the Ute Tribe was not allowed to testify, Republicans advanced the bill over the objections of Democrats, who warned that it could set a dangerous precedent for all of Indian Country.

"There sat us, the Ute Tribe, residents of the state of Utah, not allowed to speak," Chapoose said of the September 14 hearing.

The tribe's criticism of H.R.5780 has clearly irritated Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the bill's sponsor. Bristling at the phase "land grab" as "personally offensive," he accused Ute leaders of failing to respond to his staff's inquiries for more than a year but Chapoose said that wasn't the case.

Tribal leaders even met with Bishop during an energy summit in Utah before the hearing and a photo published in the Ute Bulletin, the tribe's newspaper, shows Chapoose at the table with the Republican. Chapoose later spoke forcefully about his tribe's opposition during the summit, according to the article.

"He was fully aware that we objected to the bill," Chapoose said on Tuesday. "We've taken every possible step to present it to him, hopefully to make him change direction on it."


A view of Bears Ears in Utah. Tribes want to see the area protected as a national monument. Photo by Tim Peterson

The controversy over the "land grab" has come as somewhat of a surprise. Prior to this month's activity, most of the attention has focused on provisions affecting Bears Ears, an area in Utah that numerous tribes -- including the Utes -- want to see protected as a national monument.

"I just think he thought nobody would pay attention," Chapoose said of Bishop's efforts. "He thought, 'By the time they figure this out, I will have accomplished what I'm after.'"

With opposition coming from the Obama administration and environmental groups, Democrats believe the bill faces a tough road ahead as the clock winds down on the 114th Congress. Lawmakers are expected to leave Washington at the end of this week and aren't scheduled to return until November 14, after the presidential election.

And President Barack Obama could blunt a major portion of the bill by setting aside Bears Ears a monument.

Regardless of the political winds, Chapoose said his people won't stop speaking out against H.R.5780 until their concerns are resolved.

"I'm just not just going to put my future in anybody's hands," Chapoose said.

House Committee on Natural Resources Notices:
Markup on 5 Bills (September 22, 2016)
Markup on 5 Bills (September 21, 2016)
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 5780 “Utah Public Lands Initiative Act” (September 14, 2016)

10th Circuit Court of Appeals Decisions:
Becker v. Ute Indian Tribe [Amended] (August 29, 2016)
Ute Tribe v. Utah (June 16, 2015)

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