A new generation of Southern Ute tribal leadership

Katie Burford, The Durango Herald
2/25/09

IGNACIO, Colo. – Politics, it would seem, is in the blood of new Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Matthew J. Box.

His grandfather, Eddie Box Sr., served about 15 years on the tribal council and his great-uncle Leonard Burch, whose name graces the administration building where Box’s spacious corner office can be found, was chairman for more than 20 years. Other relatives were also on the council.

But Box said entering politics never crossed his mind until fairly recently, when he was struggling to build an excavation business to support his young family.

The challenges he met trying to get contracts on his own reservation got him thinking about the changes he could make from within the system. In his 30s, he ran and, after an unsuccessful bid, was elected to the tribal council.

Now, at 40, he heads the government of a tribe with billions in investments and more employees than members. What’s more, the reservation sits atop one of the most prolific natural gas-producing basins in the country.

A young chairman, he will lead with a tribal council that also has grown younger with recent elections. At his swearing-in ceremony last month, many praised the change as a stepping up to leadership of the next generation.

As Box settles into the nitty-gritty of governance, his mind turns to the tutelage he received at the knee of his grandfather Box, who ran the tribe’s Bear and Sun dances for nearly 40 years.

“The whole concept of tribe will always be the same, and that is everybody needs to make it,” he said. “Everybody needs to make it across the river. Everybody needs to make it over the hill.”

Here are answers to some of the questions put to him about the challenges ahead: What does having a younger tribal council and chairman mean for government? Box said that in the past the council often would deliberate for long periods about each decision. The slow-moving process was to ensure everyone had an opportunity to weigh in and all sides were considered. But that approach had its limitations.

“That doesn’t work with the pace of Wall Street.”

While he sees the younger leaders moving more quickly and decisively, he said they will have to be careful not to lose the accountability of the older ways.

“We don’t want to ever become arrogant or inconsiderate of where we came from.”

With production having peaked on many of La Plata County’s coal-bed methane wells, how is the tribe coping with an eventual decline in gas production?

“The councils before us addressed it.” This was done by diversifying the tribe’s investments to include energy development elsewhere, along with real estate and other endeavors.

But matching the revenue generated from its gas would be difficult, so the tribe has tempered harvesting that resource to prolong the payoff.

“We’ve really only attacked one area,” he said, referring to the west side of the reservation; the east side is relatively untapped. “Our council has protected it, this council has protected it, for future generations, should they have to develop it.”

What are some of your central goals?

In responding to this and other questions, Box, who is careful to emphasize that everything he does is in concert with the tribal council, consistently hit on the theme of sovereignty.

“We’re still losing sovereign rights in a very tactful way that has no recourse.”

Box said this threat can take the form of self-governance, which sounds good on its face, but also represents a steady push by the federal government to relieve itself of its historical responsibility to the country’s tribes.

“You build a precedent that they don’t ever have to help you again,” he said, noting that could be especially detrimental to small, poorer tribes.

To illustrate this, he talked about the Pine River Indian Irrigation Project, the intricate system of canals and ditches that delivers water from Vallecito Reservoir to users throughout the southeastern portion of the county. The system is antiquated and badly in need of improvements.

A couple years ago, the government pushed the tribe to take it over, but the tribe balked.

“We want to make sure that if we take over certain responsibilities, that trust responsibility is intact and somewhat guaranteed for future generations,” he said.

Trust responsibility is defined as the government’s obligation, codified in its many treaties, to protect Indian interests.

“They’re promises that the government made to my great-grandparents.”

But with the government straining under the ballooning burden of everything from bailouts to retiring boomers, those obligations will remain under threat, he said.

“I call it a slow retreat.”

Box spoke more positively of the tribe’s relationship with state and county governments, which he said had faced challenges but were strong and mutually respectful.

He also spoke of a renewed commitment to transparency, which would include creating a new position in the executive to deal directly with the tribe’s approximately 1,400 members. And the leadership plans to study ways to improve tribal health care.

Harkening back to his adage that the fate of one is the fate of all, he said, “When the people are doing good, the government will be doing good.”

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