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Terminated members of Ute Tribe dispute time limits on claims

By: By Lezlee E. Whiting
For the Deseret Morning News
Published: Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007 12:07 a.m. MST

      An attorney for terminated members of the Ute Indian Tribe says that a federal statute preserves the claims of his 650 clients, despite the federal government's insistence that they have run out of time to fight a 59-year-old mandate that removed their names from the tribe's membership rolls. Dennis Chappabitty, an Indian-rights attorney from Sacramento, Calif., says a law passed by Congress three years ago proves the statute of limitations hasn't even begun to run for lead plaintiffs Oranna Felter of Roosevelt, Cal Hackford of Whiterocks and hundreds of other terminated Uinta Band members and their descendants.
      In an opinion issued Tuesday, the state's high court found that although the shooting of two bucks during the 2002 deer hunting season occurred in American Indian country, the hunters are not members of a federally recognized tribe and were hunting without licenses.
      In 1954, the Ute Partition Act removed the names of 490 Uintas with less than 50 percent Ute blood from tribal rolls. The majority of them were children. Felter was 10 years old at the time.
      Chappabitty's latest legal brief says the court must recognize that federal law bars the statute of limitations "from running on any claim, including any claim in litigation pending on the date of enactment" of the 2004 Department of Interior statute.
      The rule allows time for affected tribes or individual Indians to be furnished with an accounting of funds so they can determine whether there has been a loss.
      His clients have yet to receive any such accounting from the federal government, said Chappabitty, adding the money they are owed could be in the multi-millions of dollars. The terminated members of the Uinta band in 2002 filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to have the Ute Partition Act declared invalid. Felter has successfully fought in court for her hunting and fishing rights, but the case filed by Chappabitty five years ago was their first attempt to have the act overturned that had ended their tribal identity.
      Federal Judge Richard W. Roberts dismissed their case last year on the grounds that the statute of limitations expired in 1967. However, an appellate court this past January reversed Roberts' ruling.
      The appeals court ordered him to consider whether the terminated Uintas had access to their financial records and receive an accounting of what had transpired before ruling that the statute of limitations had run its course in the case.
      In 1950, the federal Court of Claims handed down a $32 million "judgment" on behalf of the Ute Indian Tribe. In Chappabitty's recent brief before the court, he noted that the Court of Claims funds were ordered paid to the tribe at a time when his clients "were federally recognized members of the Uintah Band of Ute Indians."
      Each of the 490 terminated tribal members were supposed to receive property, stock and cash upon termination, but the judgement funds were not included in any plans for distribution of property or assets established in the Ute Partition Act, Chappabitty said.
      Lawyers for the federal government, in their argument for final dismissal of the case, argue that the 2004 statute does not apply to Felter v. Kempthorne, which concerns "improper termination of federally recognized Indian status," not claims "concerning the losses to or mismanagement of trust funds."
      The lawyers also contend that Felter and other terminated Uintas had not taken legal steps to ask for an accounting of the millions the tribe had been paid by the federal government.
      However, the terminated members argue in their court documents that they met with task force members from the American Indian Policy Review Commission who came to Utah in the 1970s to interview them regarding the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribe's trust assets.
      "The task force went back to Congress and said there should be immediate investigations into the situation on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation involving BIA mismanagement of trust assets and unethical BIA administrative actions throughout each phase of the termination process," said Felter. "This was in 1976, to date nothing has been done."
      In the mid-1950s, the federal government was moving toward terminating memberships in all Indian tribes. Although that policy was reversed in the 1970s, and many terminated tribes were reinstated, the mixed-blood Uintas of the Ute Tribe remain disenfranchised. The Northern Ute Tribe was the only tribe in the nation to have just a portion of their total enrolled members terminated.


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