Thursday, 2 Feb 2023

Colorado tribal leaders on sports betting, water concerns

The leaders of the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Indian tribes gave a historic first address to a joint session of the Colorado General Assembly on Wednesday, drawing ovations from the gathered lawmakers.

Concerns of the past, present and future spun through their speeches: The loss of hunting lands on the Western Slope and repatriation of their ancestor’s remains; the inclusion of Native American history in schools; the inclusion of tribal water rights in the fight against a parched future; concerns about being left out of discussions about legalized sports betting and the effect on their communities, among other topics.

The two tribes are sovereign nations within the state, but the leaders and lawmakers noted they haven’t always been equal partners. Even as the legislature has taken up issues related to the native populations in recent years, the tribes have sometimes been left out of the conversation, they said. Both Melvin J. Baker, chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council, and Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, singled out legalized online sports betting.

The tribes can offer on-site sports betting, but not the online betting dominated by giant corporations, they said. Heart told lawmakers they were not consulted before lawmakers asked voters to legalize online sports betting in 2019.

It’s already cutting into a revenue stream they rely on for programs and services for their people, Heart said, and will potentially cut into future revenue for the tribe. For this issue, time is quite literally money, he said.

“Fossil fuels are going out — so where do we get revenues from?” Heart asked. “Right now, for Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, casino is one of our main revenues coming in.”

They’re asking the legislature to refer a measure to voters to include the tribes in the online gambling boom. Baker described it as “going backward, trying to fight for what was ours.”

State Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver, and member of the legislative escort for the chairmen, said the legislature must listen to their concerns — especially sports betting.

“Now that it has been raised, we must address it,” Gonzales said. “I don’t want next year for the chairmen to return and say we’re still waiting.”

She also noted the historic moment of the speeches, from the quick histories of the tribes to having the Ute language spoken in the chamber.

Heart noted the “atrocity” of government boarding schools that sought to stamp out tribal heritage and language, and treaties forced on the tribes from the first Spanish settlers through the U.S. government finally recognizing them as citizens in the early 20th century.

Still, some of those issues persist. The state may have a role to play in the tribes’ fight for water rights that they are owed, but that haven’t been quantified, for example. Heart described it as “paper water.”

While they did not shy away from some of the past mistreatment of their tribes or ongoing issues, the chairmen both struck hopeful notes about the partnership.

“We cannot change history, but we can work together, for all of our children,” Heart said.

Former state Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Vail, carried the 2022 law that requires legislative leaders to invite tribal leaders to give a joint address every year. She returned to the Capitol to watch Wednesday.

Most addresses to joint sessions of the General Assembly are simply by habit and tradition, she said. This invitation being legally required makes “an even more powerful statement of the expectations of our partnership,” she said.

“I hope the lawmakers heard the important work that still needs to be done and respond with compassion and commitment to continue to address the issues that the tribes have, and continue to be committed to them as our partner as a sovereign nation,” Donovan said.

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