Land battle brews on Missouri Heights
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
EL JEBEL ” Native Americans have been fighting for their land for centuries, and a new eviction battle in Missouri Heights once again could pit landowners and the Roaring Fork Valley’s indigenous Ute Indians against one another.
In 2003, Donna Otabachian founded Ranch Good Days, an equine therapy ranch and home for at-risk teenage girls. Her goal was to provide safe residential housing and support, especially for Ute girls.
Otabachian lives with her two biological daughters and five foster children in a leased home a short drive from five 35-acre rural parcels where she keeps horses and where she also holds lease-to-buy agreements on the land.
But when a Feb. 12 expiration on the agreement for the uppermost plot approached and she hadn’t purchased the land, Otabachian offered a $10,000 downpayment on the $400,000 parcel. The landowner, Chicago-based Dimatteo/Bond Development Co., rejected the offer and filed for eviction.
Otabachian claims the land, on the mesa above El Jebel, is sacred Ute ground and said she will fight to keep it.
The landowner’s attorney, Charles H. Willman of Glenwood Springs, said his client has been “more than patient” with Otabachian, and after an alleged string of broken promises, the owners simply want to sell the valuable hilltop plot.
But Otabachian said buying the ceremonial plot is one of the last chances for the Roaring Fork Valley’s indigenous people to own land here. She believes the eviction is a case of discrimination.
“It’s purely they don’t want the Indians up there,” Otabachian said. “It’s strictly that they don’t want us in their neighborhood.”
“It’s a purely business deal,” Willman countered. “I will categorically deny that there is any discrimination.”
Otabachian, who is not Native American, is not privy to details of Ute ceremonies, but she said elders said it was an important site for a summer ritual.
“We had elders there and, walking the mesa, they felt that the land had cultural significance,” Otabachian said. “We’re not leaving.”
Otabachian is negotiating with a Denver bank to buy the four 35-acre parcels surrounding the hilltop ceremonial parcel; she plans to buy the ceremonial land with help from the three main Ute Indian nations in Colorado and Utah: the Ute Mountain Ute, the Northern Ute and the Southern Ute.
The proposed deal involves a unique partnership of the three Ute nations cooperating to make a 20 percent downpayment on the land and secure financing through the Denver offices of the Native American Bank, Otabachian said. The cooperative effort could be a model for future programs in Native American communities.
“Some people think that Indian people live in poverty and have no say,” Otabachian said. But revenues from mineral rights and other reparations mean that many Native American groups are flush, and Otabachian hopes to fight the eviction with the help of legal teams comprising Ute groups in Colorado and Utah.
Ute people could place a cultural easement on the ceremonial plot in Missouri Heights, Otabachian said. It is something she has avoided doing so far, but added, “These people who decided to do this think that we would roll over and walk away.”
If Otabachian can buy the land, she said she will preserve the ceremonial plot, isolating development of a home for the girls and other buildings to the lower four parcels.
“Our goal is to preserve the land,” Otabachian said.
“It’s a very marketable property,” Willman said of the hilltop land. “She can’t afford to buy it.”
Willman returned the $10,000 deposit on the land as well as a $1,000 rent payment for the hilltop plot to terminate all agreements, he said.
Otabachian has not been able to come up with financing on the property, Willman said. And it is not out of malice or discrimination that his client wants to sell, Willman said; it’s just business.
“My client said, ‘I can’t wait anymore,'” Willman said. “They just want her off the property so they can sell it to someone else.”
Feb. 12 marked the end of the current month-to-month tenancy on the ceremonial plot, and Otabachian’s last-minute offer on the hilltop land was “unacceptable,” Willman said, so he filed for eviction.
“I have no idea if it is a sacred ground or not,” Willman said. “That could be a valid claim, but they don’t own the property.”
On Wednesday, a Garfield County judge ruled to move the eviction hearing to Eagle County (Willman originally filed in the wrong county). An Eagle County judge will likely hold a status conference in coming months, Willman said. And if Otabachian continues to “assert her rights” to the land, the matter could go to trial.
Willman also is involved in a separate eviction case against Otabachian at the home where she and the girls now live. That homeowner wants to sell the house to settle on an estate.
The attorney said that neither he nor his clients have anything against Otabachian or want to put children out on the street, and that they have agreed to allow Otabachian and the girls to stay there on a month-to-month basis with the condition that Otabachian cooperate with real estate agents showing the property.
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