Drought threatens a native tribe’s farm in a remote corner of Colorado

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Since the tribe derives most of its income from the Ute Mountain Casino hotel, members said the importance of the farm goes beyond dollars and cents.

“It means we have something of our own,” said Kolton Begay, 22, who has worked on the farm for six years. “It provides jobs for some people here. It means a lot to a lot of people. »

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is among dozens of tribes in the southwest to grapple with the region’s driest two decades in at least 1,200 years.

The Navajo Nation, which has the largest reservation in the United States at more than 25,000 square miles in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, uses about 2 million gallons of water every day to feed livestock, but more is needed, the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources said in a 2021 report.

Department director Jason John said $10 million would be needed for drought relief and mitigation.

“Throughout the arid Southwest, and especially in the Navajo Nation, reliable water supplies are critical to kick-starting and sustaining economic development,” officials said on the department’s website.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has 2,100 members, has inhabited the lands of what is now the Four Corners region, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet, for 10,000 years, the people said. leaders.

Manuel Heart, president of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, in his office in Towaoc, Colorado.Cate Dingley for NBC News

The once nomadic tribe hunted big game and gathered herbs and fruits for food. People moved with the seasons, following herds of wild animals to feed their families, said tribe president Manuel Heart.

“We walked these mountains as stewards,” he said. “We are the mountain people. We take care of these mountains according to the seasons and the game.”

Federal laws that set reservation boundaries eventually pushed the Utes to the southwestern edge of Colorado.

Today, his 60,000-acre reservation at the foot of Sleeping Ute Mountain overlooks desolate terrain that stretches into Utah and New Mexico.

With sales declining, Ute farmers turned to milling corn for whiskey distilleries. The tribe also packages cornmeal to use as an ingredient in pancake mix, cornbread and tortillas sold in stores across the southwest, farm officials said.

Tribal leaders could not provide an exact figure on the amount generated by milling and maize meal operations, but said it was not enough to offset projected losses caused by the drought.

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