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Ute tribal leaders discuss education, water rights in historic first address to state lawmakers

Tribal leaders address legislature
Posted at 9:10 AM, Jan 12, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-12 11:10:52-05

DENVER — For the first time in state history, the leaders of Colorado’s two tribal nations were invited to speak in front of a joint session of the legislature Wednesday.

The historic moment was made possible by legislation passed last year calling for a yearly address by the tribal nations.

“It's movement. It's been a long time coming for our past leaders that had probably always wanted to do this. And today, it was a great day,” said Melvin Baker, chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

In their speeches, chairmen from the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes detailed a long list of issues they are facing and ways the state can help.

“You may not realize that your legislation may unintentionally appear to affect those living on tribal lands and impinge upon the tribe’s jurisdictions,” said Baker. “When legislation is enacted without considering the tribes, it can create unnecessary conflict.”

The list of tribal issues included everything from water rights and renewable energy, voting rights, education and more.

In regards to voting rights, Chairman Manuel Heart said the nations are working with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, but tribal IDs have not been fully accepted as forms of identification for voting, cashing checks and more.

On education, Heart called for more Native American history to be included in school curriculums

“It is important that future generations are provided with this history and knowledge. Now is the time to ensure that the oldest continuous residents of this country, their history be required into the curriculum and education public system,” he said.

Heart spoke at length about the charter school that was formed on tribal lands with a focus on Ute curriculum and language, as well as future plans to create a K-12 charter school and possibly a junior college or technical school for Indigenous students to attend.

On the reintroduction of gray wolves, tribal leaders said that while the animals are sacred, they are also a threat to their livestock. They called on the state to recognize tribal sovereignty if they choose to introduce their own wolf management plan separate from Colorado.

Both tribes spoke at length about the need to reform sports betting law in the state, saying they were not involved in the drafting of that legislation and have not been able to access it.

“The Ute Mountain Tribe is still not able to participate in online sports betting, like every other casino in the state. The regulatory structure imposed by the legislators does not fit well with the Ute tribes as a sovereign,” said Heart.

Sports betting was passed by voters in 2019 through Proposition DD after lawmakers passed a bill to get the question on the ballot. Since 2020, Coloradans have wagered more than $8 billion.

Recent data shows sports betting in November resulted in more than $37.6 million in gross gaming revenue for the state, the vast majority of which was made online.

While the tribes say they are allowed to participate in in-person sports betting, they want the right to be able to offer online sports betting like other casinos.

“This issue remains unresolved three years later. We are asking you to resolve it,” said Baker.

Because of federal laws, tribal gaming is not used for profit, but to provide resources for the benefit of residents. He said the additional revenue will help provide jobs, housing and infrastructure on the reservations.

Baker and Heart also took issue with the 10% tax on casino earnings from sports betting, saying that tribes are exempt from state taxation, so they should not face the tax. The 10% tax on casino earnings from sports is put towards the state's water plan. Instead, they want to see that revenue go to tribal water projects that are in the works separate from the state.

On water rights, Heart pointed out that some tribes still do not have their water allocation quantified, and while they are consulted, most tribes still are not invited to vote on water management plans in the state.

He also pointed out there is currently no delivery system in the state to get tribes' allocated water out to their reservations. So, as the water sits, it evaporates and cannot be used. The tribes said they could use some help from the state in developing systems to move the water to the reservations.

In the end, both tribes said the key to all of these issues is communication and a seat at the table, not only to discuss but also to take part in the creation of legislation that will affect them.

“There is an understanding that we can't always agree on every issue, but sometimes it's better to disagree and work together. It is the cooperation and willingness to work together that makes us all stronger,” Baker said.