Four women from the nation's second largest Indian reservation have turned to the federal court system after they were banished by tribal leadership last year.
"It changed our lives," Ute tribal member Angelita Chegup said. "One moment, I had a job, the next moment I didn't."
Banishment is a severe and rare form of punishment in Indian Country. It has its roots in pre-Colonial America, when tribes would banish murderers, thieves or mutineers from their community and into the wild.
"In many cases, that would've essentially been a death sentence," said Grant Christensen, who teaches American Indian Law at the University of North Dakota School of Law.
Nowadays, banishment is often used as a way to exclude people from a reservation, according to Christensen. In many cases, people lose their homes, are stripped of their jobs and are barred from entering tribal lands.
The Northern Arapaho in Wyoming, for example, banished a tribal member who was caught embezzling thousands of dollars. The Blackfeet in Montana have a history of banishing drug dealers.
But Chegup and the three other women, Tara Amboh, Mary Carol Jenkins and Lynda Kozlowitz, argue they were banished from the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in northeastern Utah for more political reasons — their attempt to bring history to light.
Preexisting land rights
The women say they are from two earlier bands of Indigenous people who lived in northeastern Utah before the federally recognized Ute tribe even existed. The women contend that they have 19th century treaty rights to an oil-rich part of the reservation.
"We've been bringing this issue out," Chegup said. "We all need to know our history here."
If these claims are true, it means that these women would have control over that part of the reservation, as well as the oil and gas beneath it.
Members of Ute tribal leadership declined to be interviewed, but in court documents claimed that the women were trying to destabilize its government. The women interfered in ongoing litigation pertaining to the tribe, according to legal filings. Tribal leadership described the women's claims as frivolous and nonsensical and said these claims cost the tribe millions of dollars in legal fees.
Eventually, the tribe sentenced the four women to a five-year banishment. Amboh said the punishment is similar to public shaming.
"We'll walk into a grocery store and get the look, you know, from people," she said. "It takes away your liberty, your freedom. And all we were doing was freedom of speech."
Chegup said the five-year banishment forced her into an early retirement from her position as a grant coordinator for the Ute Indian Tribe. She retains tribal membership but said she lost her employee health and life insurance benefits.
Now, unless Chegup has a police escort, she can't attend traditional ceremonies on reservation lands or visit friends and family — even when a few of those friends and family members died.
"I couldn't attend the funeral because of what the council decided," Chegup said.
Due process and unlawful detention
After the women were banished, they sued the tribe in Utah's federal District Court, arguing that they weren't given due process and that the banishment was a violation of their civil rights. But the case was dismissed. According to District Judge Dale Kimball's ruling, 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," explained Grant Christensen, Indian law professor at the University of North Dakota. "Tribes are their own governments separate from states and separate from the United States."
Congress tried to build a workaround in 1968 called the Indian Civil Rights Act, which extends most but not all of the country's constitutional protections onto tribal governments.
But the act's enforcement has been mostly struck down by the courts because tribes are sovereign. However, there is an exception. Federal courts are allowed to intervene if someone is unlawfully detained by a tribe.
"In that context, banishment runs into an interesting gray area in the law," Christensen said.
The federal courts are currently split over whether temporary banishment is a form of unlawful detention. 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 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.
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