Jimmy R. Newton Jr., the chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, died on Monday.
Jimmy R. Newton Jr., the chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, died on Monday. (Courtesy of Southern Ute Drum)

Farmington — The tribal chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe died on Monday.

Jimmy R. Newton Jr. died from an undisclosed illness at Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango, Colo., tribal spokeswoman Beth Santistevan said.

"He dedicated his career to helping his fellow tribal council and all enrolled members of the tribe," vice chairman James Olguin said. "His passing leaves us without our veteran leader and with a huge hole in the heart of all who worked with or knew him."

Newton, 37, was elected chairman in 2011. He was the youngest man to serve in the position.

One of his focuses was the tribe's children because they are the future leaders, Santistevan said, adding that Newton often visited schools in the Ignacio School District to talk about Southern Ute culture and tradition.

Newton's political career started when he was 26.

He served as a member of the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council and then as vice chairman. The tribal council twice appointed him acting chairman.

Newton advocated for the tribe, as well as for the Ute Mountain Ute and Northern Ute tribes, when he traveled to Washington D.C. because he understood tribal nations need support from the federal government, Santistevan said.

Funeral services are pending, and information will be posted on the tribe's website once arrangements are made, Santistevan said.

Both Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize expressed condolences on behalf of the Navajo Nation in statements released on Tuesday.

"We are saddened by the loss of such a young and accomplished tribal leader," Shelly said. "We will keep his wife, daughter and family in our prayers."

Naize said Newton served his people with great dignity and respect.

"It is always difficult to accept the loss of a great leader," Naize said. "His words of wisdom, his accomplishments, and his teachings will never be forgotten."

In a July 2013 interview with the National Museum of the American Indian, Newton talked about how his experiences prepared him to lead the tribe.

"Looking back at my life experience, I've always tried to be strong person and always knowing who I am as a Ute man," he said.

Newton earned a degree in visual graphic design from Al Collins Graphic Design School in Phoenix.

Prior to his political service, he worked as a reporter and photographer for the tribe's newspaper, The Southern Ute Drum.

He is survived by his wife, Flora Murphy Newton, and his daughter, Maylon Newton.

According to the tribe's press release, the tribal constitution stipulates a special election must be called within 60 days to fill the vacancy.

Until then, Olguin will exercise the authority of the chairman's office.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and nsmith@daily-times.com. Follow her on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.