Four women from the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in northeastern Utah have turned to the federal court system after they were banished by Ute tribal leadership last year.
“It changed our lives,” Angelita Chegup said. “One moment, I had a job, the next moment I didn’t.”
Chegup said the banishment forced her into an early retirement from her position as a grant coordinator for the Ute Indian Tribe. She lost her health and life insurance. Now, unless Chegup has a police escort, she can’t attend traditional ceremonies on reservation lands or visit friends and family. She says she’s missed funerals.
“Our families died,” she says. “I’ve had a few die and couldn’t attend their funerals because of what the council decided.”
Banishment is a severe and rare form of punishment in Indian Country. It has its roots in pre-settlement America, when tribes would banish murderers, thieves or mutineers away from their community and into the wild unknown.
“In many cases, that would’ve essentially been a death sentence,” said Grant Christensen, Indian Law professor at the University of North Dakota.
But nowadays, banishment is often used as a way to exclude people from a reservation, according to Christensen. The Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, for example, banished a tribal member after they were caught embezzling thousands of dollars. The Blackfeet in Montana have a history of banishing drug dealers.
But Chegup and three other women from the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation are seeking an appeal in the 10th Circuit after they were banished for continually challenging the legitimacy of their reservation’s tribal leadership.
The conflict began after the women intervened in two major lawsuits pertaining to the tribe, using the opportunities to assert what they saw as their sovereignty and their right to have a voice at the table. The women argue they have 19th century treaty rights to the Uintah Valley, an oil-rich part of the reservation.
“We’ve been bringing this issue out,” Chegup said. “‘We all need to know our history here.”
That history is at the core of this dispute. Chegup says she’s from the Uintah band of Indians of Utah and that they’ve lived in the valley since time immemorial. In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln signed an executive order granting the band ownership over the land there.
But over the subsequent decades, the valley became part of a larger reservation. The U.S. government eventually moved more bands onto that reservation, merged the Uintah band with one of them, and then clumped them all together into a single, federally-recognized tribe: The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.
It’s the Ute tribe that currently holds power and runs the reservation.
“We’re not one people,” Chegup says. “There are three bands. Two of them are from Colorado and you’ve got the original owners, entitled to this land here, which are the Uintahs.”
Chegup’s Uintah band of Indians of Utah argue they still have treaty rights to their original 1861 lands. But the tribe isn’t federally-recognized — meaning it doesn’t have much legal power. Eventually, the Ute tribe got tired of dealing with this breakaway faction.
Ute leadership claimed the womens’ court interventions were costing them millions of dollars. A 2018 petition was signed by 70 Ute tribal members and the women were banished for five years.
Now, their mugshots are posted behind the security desk at tribal headquarters — thumbtacked next to a couple of drug dealers who were also banished from the reservation.
Luke Duncan, chairman of the Ute Tribe Indian Business Committee, the tribe’s governing body, said there is a lot of misinformation swirling around the Uintah band’s claims, but declined to comment further because of ongoing litigation.
That litigation started in Utah’s federal district court where the women sued the Ute tribe arguing their banishment is a violation of their civil rights. But their case was dismissed there. According to district judge Dale Kimball, the tribes are sovereign nations and the U.S. courts don’t have jurisdiction in this particular dispute.
“Tribes are not inherently bound by the U.S. Constitution,” explains Grant Christensen, Indian Law professor at the University of North Dakota. “Instead, Congress wrote a law back in 1968 called the Indian Civil Rights Act. It extends most, but not all, of our constitutional protections onto tribal governments.”
But here’s the thing: enforcement of that 1968 law has been mostly struck down by the courts due to tribal sovereignty. There is one exception, however. Tribes can’t unlawfully detain people.
The federal courts are currently split over whether temporary banishment is a form of unlawful detainment. The women are preparing to appeal their case to the 10th circuit. If the appeals court decides to hear the case it could set up a fight that ends up in the Supreme Court.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center For the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.