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Thursday, April 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Court Tosses Claim Over Ute Tribal Water Rights

(CN) - An organization representing half-blood Ute Indians waited too long to sue over tribal water rights that were divvied up before half-blood members were severed from the tribe in 1961, the 10th Circuit ruled.

The case stems from the Ute Partition and Termination Act (UPA) of 1954, which divided and distributed the assets of the Ute tribe on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah between its "mixed-blood" and "full-blood" members. The UPA also terminated federal supervision over the trust and severed the mixed-blood members from the tribe.

In the mid-1950s, tribe had about 1,300 full-bloods and 490 mixed-bloods. Under the UPA, the mix-blood members would no longer have an interest in the tribe, and in August 1961, the Secretary of the Interior proclaimed their final termination from the tribe.

In 1969 a group representing the mixed-blood members, the Affiliated Ute Citizens of Utah, filed a lawsuit accusing the government of giving them less than their fair share of the tribe's water rights.

After eight years of litigation, the U.S. Court of Claims ruled for the government, saying Affiliated Ute Citizens filed their complaint two years too late. Any objections the group had to the division of the tribe's assets should have been raised within six years of the UPA's passage in 1961, the court ruled.

In 1995 the Ute Distribution Corp., a company formed by half-blood members to help manage any unresolved assets, sued the Secretary of the Interior and the tribe, again claiming the division plan cheated half-blood Utes on water rights. It sought a declaration "that certain water rights were not partitioned" and "that they remain in trust for the benefit of mixed-blood and full-blood members of the tribe."

The federal appeals court in Denver agreed with the defendants that Ute Distribution filed its claim too late.

Judge Briscoe said the plaintiff knew or should have known about the water-rights claim, given the previous litigation in claims court.

"In other words, an entity closely aligned with (Ute Distribution) and acting on behalf of the mixed-bloods filed suit alleging a claim similar, if not identical, to the one now asserted," Briscoe wrote.

The court affirmed dismissal of the lawsuit as untimely.

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