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Ex-Utes tell of woes brought on by partition

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ROOSEVELT — The plight of the 490 men, women and children whose names were taken off the rolls of the Ute Indian Tribe in the mid-1950s compares to the oppression — and even genocide — going on in other countries.

That's how the attorney for the plaintiffs in a civil rights lawsuit against the federal government characterized the plight of his clients — the terminated members of the Uinta band of Ute Indians and their descendants.

"The (terminated) Uinta experience is the same as cultural genocide. We need to get some acknowledgment. The U.S. government started this 50 years ago . . . by throwing a spark into an already hate-filled environment," said Dennis G. Chappabitty, the Sacramento, Calif., attorney who represents 650 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in 2002.

Chappabitty met with his clients in Roosevelt recently and told them they must educate the public and their political leaders about their fight for justice, which now spans half a century.

It will be a tough job, he said. The issues surrounding both termination and the federal court case are complex and easily misunderstood. According to Chappabitty, that's the reason the media and general public shy away from the story. Even the federal court judge assigned to the matter has had it under advisement for almost three years now.

"It's hard to grasp the totality of what went wrong here," said Chappabitty, who is Apache and Comanche. "The more public recognition and understanding about the case, the better."

According to Chappabitty, Utah's congressional representatives haven't offered their support because they fear offending the Ute Indian Tribe, which wants no relationship with the terminated Uintas.

"It is clear that no member of Utah's Congressional delegation wants to risk addressing the issue head-on by sponsoring restoration legislation when very powerful organizations, including the Ute Indian Tribe, now own assets lost by my clients," he said.

In 1954, Congress passed the Ute Partition Act (UPA). It effectively stripped 490 "mixed-blood" Uinta Utes of their membership in the Ute Indian Tribe.

Contrary to a commonly-held belief that the mixed-blood Uintas approved of termination in order to gain land and money, Chappabitty said, "There is no proof in the historical record that mixed-blood Uintas ever voluntarily agreed to their termination."

The government's termination plan was meant to assimilate the mixed-blood Uintas into mainstream America, but what it did, said Chappabitty, was crush a group of people by illegally taking away their cultural identity.

The 490 who were terminated included 260 children with no understanding of the significance of what was taking place, said Oranna Felter, the lead plaintiff in the case. At the same time, the majority of the terminated adults lacked any financial savvy. According to Chappabitty, that's why the land, money and stocks in Ute Distribution Corporation (UDC) — given to the terminated Uintas to help ease their break from the Ute Tribe — were soon gone.

The terminated Uintas' multi-faceted federal lawsuit seeks to have the Ute Partition Act declared null and void. Any transfers executed through that act would become illegal and the terminated Uinta Utes would be reinstated as members of the Uinta band.

Chappabitty said the fact that the judge has had the suit before him for such a long time should bode well for his clients.

"The judge isn't going to wipe it out," he said. "He would have done that a long time ago."

After judicial remedies are exhausted, the terminated Uintas would have to go to Congress for restoration of their status as Uinta band members.

"What happens if a positive decision is made? It merely means the judge does not agree with the United States and we can keep it alive," he said. "We can go forward and provide evidence."

Chappabitty said some of that evidence will include researching what became of stock shares and other assets, given to the terminated Uintas and their children, which were to be managed by UDC. Today, the vast majority of UDC stockholders are non-Indians, he said.

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