"Then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne flashed a big grin as he opened the Minerals Management Service's Lease Sale 206 in the Louisiana Superdome on March 19, 2008. Eighty-five oil companies were vying for the chance to drill in the Gulf of Mexico. With oil selling for over $100 per barrel, the Superdome hadn't seen such a frenzy since Beyoncé kicked off her tour here a year earlier.
High bids totaled more than $3.5 billion, a new record, for access to more than 28 million acres of sea-bottom. BP, the international energy giant, paid $34 million for the 5,760 acres known as Mississippi Canyon block 252 -- a disastrous purchase in retrospect, since the well that was eventually drilled there was the one that exploded and caused the current mess in the Gulf.
Also bidding for block 252 was Red Willow Offshore, LLC, with a $14 million offer that came up short. The company has made a splash in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years, typically partnering with others on deepwater endeavors. But Red Willow Offshore is not your average international oil company. It is the wholly owned subsidiary of a small American Indian nation -- the Southern Ute Tribe in southwestern Colorado.
Less than a century ago, the Southern Utes were barely hanging on, squeezed onto an unremarkable sliver of reservation land, a new and foreign way of life thrust upon them. Even as late as the 1950s, many had no running water or noticeable income. But today, as the bidding at the Superdome showed, the once-impoverished tribe is a financial powerhouse. With tribal businesses in 14 states, ranging from Gulf crude to upscale San Diego real estate, the 1,400 or so tribal members are, collectively, worth billions.
They didn't strike it rich on casino gambling. Instead, the Southern Utes built their empire slowly, over decades, primarily by taking control of the vast coalbed methane and natural gas deposits that lie under their land. They've achieved cultural, environmental and economic self-determination through energy self-determination -- a feat rarely accomplished, whether by Indians or non-Indians.
"The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is unique," one tribal Web site says matter-of-factly -- a statement few would argue with."
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The Ute Paradox
(High Country News 7/9)
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