Juanita Plenty Holes, Ute Mountain Tribal Council member, and Bradley W. Hight, Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council vice-chairman, present the tribal flag to Jay Grimm, director of the Denver Indian Center, where it will join other tribal flags in a display. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe flag was also presented at Denver Indian Center, where the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs held its quarterly meeting November 30. (Carol Berry)

Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs Tackles Pending Issues, Longstanding Problems, and Youths’ Possibilities

Carol Berry


Anxiety over violence in Indian country intensified a little for some when Colorado voters in November approved Amendment 64, which allows those 21 and older to possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

The slight loosening of drug laws “will impact tribes,” said John Walsh, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, who addressed the quarterly meeting of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe with other members of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA) November 30.

Marijuana use is higher among Native American groups than in other populations, partly because of its ready availability and its first use at an earlier age, federal studies show.

Drug traffickers “on public lands and Indian country are often armed and dangerous, using force and intimidation to protect their drug operations,” according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Walsh has closed medical marijuana dispensaries near schools and has noted that marijuana’s use remains illegal under federal law. Because federal/state negotiations concerning enforcement are “an evolving process,” he provided few details.

One problem posed by low-income federally subsidized housing is “very compelling,” he said, because it has the potential to cause problems—or even eviction—for those using medical marijuana under housing rules that don’t permit the use of marijuana or other drugs.

The CCIA had diverse issues on its meeting agenda, but members’ concerns in many ways returned to youth and their education. Bradley W. Hight, vice-chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council summed it up when he said, “I could talk about my past (but we) decided to focus on our kids,” noting that “you can’t go back.”

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who heads CCIA and also the Colorado Department of Higher Education, said the Native American tuition program at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado is “an ongoing obligation” to Indian students from throughout the country and there is “no effort to change that,” but rather to work to find supporting funds.

Ernest House Jr., Ute Mountain Ute, CCIA executive secretary, described a fellowship that recently took him abroad to five countries and said that he hopes more tribal youth can be included in the leadership exchange in the future.

Public school/boarding school issues are still around, as well.

Local public school officials paid more attention to Native students’ behavior than to academics, said Juanita Plenty Holes, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council. One student had consistently poor grades but they let him pass; he went to boarding school and “he did really good there.”

Some Native students were being sent from junior high school to boarding school, rather than to high school, said Steven Chavez, director of the state division of civil rights, who said he would be concerned if they were sent there “because they [school officials] couldn’t deal with them.”

“Is this still happening?” said Gary Hayes, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. “Racism still exists across the board even in our classrooms.” He pointed out that the youth “may get more respect for who they are” in boarding school and he said that the graduation rate for Indian students overall in Colorado is below 50 percent.

On another note, Marguerite Salazar, regional director, Health and Human Services Region 8, told the CCIA she had responded to some people that special provisions in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act are not “bonuses” or “gifts” but were treaty-related in exchange for “huge swaths of land” and Indians are not getting anything “extra” or “special.”

Hayes was concerned about the tribal/state relationship, when the services in question were related to treaty and trust agreements with the federal government: “I’m concerned about an erosion of tribal sovereignty,” he said.

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