Deseret Morning News, Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Members of Uinta band lose bid to regain status

By Lezlee E. Whiting
For the Deseret Morning News

ROOSEVELT A federal court decision handed down Friday in Washington, D.C., has dashed the immediate hopes of hundreds of mixed-blood Indian plaintiffs seeking to regain their status as Uinta band members of the Ute Indian Tribe.

U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts granted the federal government's motion to dismiss the case, filed in 2002, on the grounds that the statute of limitations expired six years after the claims of government wrongdoing in 1954 and 1961.

"Because plaintiffs' complaint does not allege any acts that the defendants committed within the six-year statute of limitations period, and because plaintiffs have failed to justify the application of any exception to relieve them from their having filed this action outside the limitations period, plaintiffs' claims are time barred," the judge wrote in his 17-page decision.

The plaintiffs' central complaints were tied to the Ute Partition Act of 1954 and the 1961 publication in the Federal Register of Names of the Uinta band members on the official termination rolls. The very latest they could have filed suit to have it considered by the court would have been in 1967, said Roberts.

"We were hoping for better news than this. We are disappointed," said Oranna Felter, the Roosevelt woman who is the lead plaintiff in Felter v. Norton. "If I would have had to put something in six years after I was terminated, I would have been 17 years old. What 17-year-old is going to file something in court saying they have been wrongly terminated?"

In the history of U.S. Indian policies, the mixed-blood Uinta Utes are the only group within a tribe targeted for termination. All tribes that were terminated have since been reinstated, leaving the mixed-blood Uinta Utes as the only terminated people who have not yet regained their status as Native Americans.

Felter said of the 490 Uinta Utes who were terminated, 260 were children at the time their families signed their names to termination rolls and received money and property to help them assimilate into a life away from the reservation. As children, she said they lacked an understanding of the significance of what was taking place because of the Ute Partition Act.

Dennis G. Chappabitty, the Sacramento, Calif., attorney representing the terminated Uintas, said he realizes his clients are "devastated" by the ruling but believes the majority will remain on board to "see justice done."

That may involve going to Utah's congressional delegation for legislation to restore the mixed-blood Uintas to their previous status as federally recognized members of the Ute Indian Tribe, he said. Or, Chappabitty said, it may mean asking President Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to use his influence to help his clients.

Chappabitty said he will spend this week researching the best path to pursue and take a careful look at what the judge may be trying to tell him through the language used in his recent ruling.

According to Chappabitty, Roberts' conclusion did not close the door to the possibility the case could be refiled in his court, if the claims were stated differently.

"Usually, at the end of the order, the judge has a very clear language. Typically, the judge says the plaintiffs' order is 'dismissed with prejudice,' which means 'It's over, do not think about coming back before me to ever to do this again,' but he didn't say that to us," Chappabitty said.

Chappabitty also may have found another crack in the court's door through a footnote that stated, "Plaintiffs did not allege in their complaint that circumstances beyond their control occurred which made plaintiffs unable to discover the underlying wrongful act until the present time."

"There are indications, in my opinion, that he is guiding us here," Chappabitty said. "That he is saying, 'You didn't put this in. If you did put this in, I would have looked at this differently.' "




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