Age-Old Fight Over Ute Boundaries Complicates Policing In Tiny Utah Town
Disputes over Native American territory are an ongoing struggle in Utah. The city of Myton, in Duchesne County, is ground zero in such a dispute.
The tiny city sits within the boundaries of the Uintah and Ouray Indian reservation, which is home to the Ute Indian Tribe.
Ronnie Young has the keys to the city. He’s the facilities guy, and he’s lived here his entire life. He unlocks the door to the Myton Memories Museum, which sits across from city hall, to give a tour of Myton's history. There aren’t any other visitors, and the streets outside are mostly empty. Young says this old building used to be the town saloon.
Now it’s filled with family photos, old tools and oddities. Just outside there’s a small shed that holds part of the museum. Young says it used to the be the city jail.
“As a kid, I remember walking up and down the alleyway and there would be some old drunkards in there,” he says. "The windows would be open."
But Myton doesn’t have a jail now. In fact, it doesn’t even have a police department. Until recently, the city had a single police officer, named Tim, who worked part time. But when nearby Roosevelt City had an opening for a full time position, he took it.
“Really helped having Tim in service,” Young says. “Because like your graffiti, vandalism, stuff like that really shut down. It really helped. I’m curious to see what happens when he’s gone now. See if it will come back.”
The city sits in the middle of the Uintah Ouray Indian Reservation. And unlike most reservations that are contiguous swaths of land like the Navajo for instance, the Ute Reservation is broken up by towns like Myton, Roosevelt, Duchesne and Tabiona. Myton City itself is a patchwork of tribal and non-tribal land.
Tribal Elder Forrest Cuch lives on the reservation. He says despite their proximity, native and non-native residents are still kind of strangers.
“I get along with my neighbors quite well. I get to know them and we share things and work together. But that’s because I reach out to them,” Cuch says. “And I know the history and I know their history. And I’m not afraid to do that. But most people here in the basin are afraid of each other.”
I get along with my neighbors quite well. I get to know them and we share things and work together. But that's because I reach out to them. And I know the history and I know their history. And I'm not afraid to do that. But most people here in the basin are afraid of each other. -Ute Tribal Elder Forrest Cuch
And fear doesn’t play out well in a community plagued by an ongoing dispute over criminal jurisdiction.
If residents who live in Myton need to report a crime, they have to call what’s referred to as central dispatch. An operator asks if they are a tribal member and if they’re on tribal property. Then they decide who comes out to deal with the issue: tribal police or the Duchesne County Sheriff. This causes problems, not just in Myton, but all over the Uintah Basin.
In 2007 a Ute tribal member fled a Utah Highway Patrol traffic stop onto tribal land. Uintah County Police followed him there. He was shot in the head during an exchange of gunfire. The medical examiner said he killed himself, but his family believes he was murdered by the officers.
The tribe said the officers had no right to chase him onto tribal land and accused them of trespassing. This summer, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the tribe. Now they face charges in Tribal Court.
This is why Duchesne County Sheriff David Boren is reticent to put his officers in Myton. He decided they’ll no longer patrol the city or prosecute most misdemeanors there.
“I don’t want my officers or my office or the county sued because of that recent court decision,” Boren says. Instead, he's treating Myton like other parts of the county and responding to calls only.
“But a patrolling situation, you don’t know who you’re stopping,” he says. “And we don’t ever want to get into a situation where we want to be accused of racially profiling.”
This dispute goes back more than a century. Congress forced the Ute Indians onto the Uintah and Ouray and Uncompahgre Reservations in the 1860s. Then in 1905, they opened it up to non-tribal homesteaders. That’s when towns like Myton were created. Forty years later, the Secretary of Interior ordered what was left unclaimed to be returned to the tribe. That’s how the checkerboard boundaries that exist today were created.
“I grew up here and I’ve been here for a long time,” Boren says. “I’ve probably got as good understanding of where tribal property is as probably anybody and it’s still confusing to me.”
Technology has made it easier with GPS but the difference can literally mean standing on one side of a fence or the other.
Erick Blackburn is the Bureau of Indian Affairs Police Chief. He thinks Sheriff Boren is overcomplicating the issue.
“I don’t know why they’re making it difficult,” he says. “More difficult than it needs to be.”
Blackburn says Duchesne County is not doing its job to protect non-tribal residents in Myton.
“If we come across a crime that’s not our jurisdiction, or they’re non-tribal than there’s nothing we can do about it."
The state and local governments have been trying to get some clarity on who owns what land for decades. They’ve filed numerous lawsuits. And with the exception of a couple of cases, courts side with the tribe.
“The federal government has changed positions over the years, particularly on the status of streets and allies in Myton and other towns,” says Attorney Craig Smith. He represents Myton.
“They’ve flip-flopped on that over the years and we have different documents from different eras coming to different conclusions.”
He says the city is just trying reconcile these inconsistent court rulings so it can maintain city streets and provide municipal services.
“If you read the 1945 restoration order that was issued by the Secretary of the Interior, it does not identify specific lands that were restored to reservation.”
But for Tribal Elder Forrest Cuch this is really quite clear. Unless the property was homesteaded and the title was granted in the early 20th century, it’s Indian Country.
At the same time, he blames the federal government for opening up the reservation in the first place.
“They stand back and watch the state and tribe fight over jurisdiction," says Cuch. "And the state and counties and cities have lost in most cases because they do not have an adequate understanding of federal law.”
If this sounds familiar, Cuch says, that’s because it’s in line with many Utah leaders’ anti-federal government attitude. The recent shrinking of the Bear’s Ear’s National Monument is a perfect example. Natives wanted it. Whites in the area didn’t. He says it’s both Anti-Federalism and anti-Native.
“You cannot usurp federal law,” Cuch says. “It’s the law of the land. And so you have to accept it. Get over it and find out how to cross-deputize and make it work.”
The courts are exasperated by the saga. They’ve asked Myton and the Ute Tribe to hash this out through mediation. That means working together, behind closed doors, to finally determine who owns specific streets, alleyways and properties in the city.
But as unending court battles have shown, finality here in the Uintah basin is elusive and relationships, like the boundaries, are equally complicated.