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Vernal • Nearly four years ago, a young Ute man was found partially disrobed and bleeding along a Uintah County backroad within the old Uncompahgre Reservation, but off of tribal lands. The shoe prints on the beaten man's face matched those in the dirt around him, evidence that this remote location was where the man was attacked.
Those shoes were soon determined to belong to Keith Blackhair, an American Indian whose subsequent prosecution by state authorities has helped re-ignite a long-running jurisdictional feud between the Ute Indian Tribe and two Utah counties.
The tribe's leadership claims Duchesne and Uintah sheriff's deputies, as well as municipal police and state troopers, have no authority to pull over, detain and arrest tribal members anywhere in "Indian Country," a vast swath of the Uinta Basin within the "exterior boundaries" of the historic Uintah Valley and Uncompahgre reservations.
Contrary to the counties' claims, these reservations were never diminished or disestablished so tribal members' conduct within them is subject only to federal and tribal jurisdiction, according to arguments tribal lawyers are advancing in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court.
The tribe's lawyer, Frances Bassett, accuses the counties of trying to "steal" more of the Utes' territory a century after the federal government broke its promises to the tribe by opening these lands to white settlement.
"This is a tribe that has given up so much already. They want to maintain their sovereign authority over what they have left," Bassett said. "This is an issue that tribes are still fighting for their lives in the courts."
But the tribe's position is unrealistic given the checkerboard pattern of land ownership across the Uinta Basin, Uintah and Duchesne county, officials say. After 1905, tribal trust lands that weren't allotted to Indian families reverted to the public domain and became eligible for homesteading, thus leading to the establishment of largely white communities such as Myton, Roosevelt and Duchesne, which dominate the western part of the basin today.
In many places jurisdictional lines run down the middle of county roads. Deputies cannot always know whose turf they are patrolling, nor can they be certain whether a suspect is a tribal member until they check their ID.
Officers owe a duty to the public to pull over speeding and erratic drivers regardless of who's behind the wheel, said Jonathan Stearmer, Uintah's chief deputy county attorney.
"The first issue should be, is the public protected? If you answer in the affirmative, then you address who has jurisdiction to prosecute the alleged offense," Stearmer said. "If they say we can't patrol and pull tribal members over, in essence they are asking us to racially profile people."
Phones messages left last week with tribal leaders were not returned.
Meanwhile, the National Congress of American Indians adopted a resolution of support for the Utes' cause and called on the federal government to intervene on the tribe's behalf.
State officials are deeply concerned with the dispute and are assisting the counties' defense and counterclaims. Utah respects the tribe's sovereignty, but tribal leaders are now trying to expand their jurisdictional reach in ways that compromise public safety and extend tribal authority off reservation into children protection, education and business regulation, according to deputy Attorney General Randy Hunter.
Some 6,500 miles of roads crisscross 2.8 million acres devoid of signs indicating when you are entering and leaving tribal lands, notes attorney Jesse Trentadue, representing Duchesne County.
"It is not a question of rampant run-amok law enforcement in the Uinta Basin. It's dedicated people trying to make an unworkable situation workable," he said during a recent court hearing.
Further complicating the picture are conflicting court opinions regarding the status of the Unitah Valley Reservation, established in 1864. The federal 10th Circuit has ruled that Congress did not diminish it and most of its lands, two-thirds of Duchesne County, are "Indian Country" in which tribal jurisdiction applies. The Utah Supreme Court, in its 1992 Hagen decision, has ruled this reservation has shrunk. Tribal jurisdiction applies only within the remnants scattered within the complicated lines marking the countless edges of today's Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation, according to the counties' interpretation.
The two sides settled the Utes' jurisdictional lawsuit in 2000 after the tribe won a string of favorable decisions in the 10th Circuit and worked out jurisdiction-sharing agreements that held for several years. One key requirement had Uintah County referring misdemeanor cases to tribal court. The tribe terminated these agreements, and attempts to renegotiate them failed. Accordingly, Uintah County authorities in 2011 resumed prosecuting tribal members in state court and relations with the tribe have been sliding ever since.
To bolster their cases in court, each side describes incidences of cops behaving badly. In one declaration, a Ute man complained a deputy impounded his truck for an expired registration after he had notified authorities of a suspected poacher on tribal lands. In another case, a non-Indian said a tribal conservation officer cited him with trespassing on tribal lands while he drove on a county road to a cabin off-reservation.
During the past two years, tribal leaders have sent repeated demands to the counties to cease "further patrolling, arrest and harassment of Tribal Members on Rights of Ways [sic] crossing Tribal lands." Deputies have since stepped up patrols on reservation and are more aggressively citing tribal members, Bassett alleges.
The Blackhair matter appears to have pushed the tribe's patience to a breaking point. This case arose Sept. 28, 2009, after the beating victim was found lying beside Eight Mile Flat Road, near Pariette Draw southwest of Ouray.
Uintah County prosecutors agreed to drop assault charges against Keith Blackhair to allow prosecution to proceed in federal court where Blackhair pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four months in jail.
Soon after Blackhair's plea deal in 2012, Uintah County prosecutors re-filed state charges, which Blackhair is contesting on the grounds that the state lacks authority in Indian Country.
In their legal filings opposing Blackhair's motion to dismiss, county prosecutors argued Congress long ago disestablished the Uncompahgre Reservation.
Within a few months, the tribe revived its old suit, filing papers that sought an injunction to force the counties to abide by the 2000 settlement and prior court rulings. In a clear nod to the Blackhair controversy, the motion's first of many demands calls for an order barring the counties from asserting in any legal forum that the Uncompahgre has been diminished.
Uinta Basin's Indian lands
1861 • President Lincoln reserves 2 million acres for Indian settlement in the then-Utah territory.
1864 • Congress creates the Uintah Valley Reservation "for the permanent settlement and exclusive occupation of" Native Americans, confirming the president's order.
1880s • Federal policy changes, requiring parcels to be given to individuals rather than have them live on communally held land.
1882 • President Arthur establishes the 2 million-acre Uncompahgre Reservation for Utes evicted from Colorado.
1902 • Congress OKs giving 80 acres to each head of household and 40 acres to each additional member. Unalloted lands would revert to public domain subject to the Homestead Act.
1905 • President Theodore Roosevelt signs a proclamation opening about 400,000 acres to white settlement.
1948 • Congress expands the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation, adding the Hill Creek region of the old Uncompahgre Reservation.
1975 • Ute Tribe files suit against Duchesne and Uintah counties