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Efforts to grant tribes more authority are met with resistance from non-tribal lawmakers

The extent of sovereignty for Native American tribes has long been like a tug-of-war between tribal and non-tribal governments in the United States. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports that the issue of sovereignty trickles down to everything, even the issuance of traffic tickets, and lawmakers are moving nowhere fast to fix problems caused by disagreements over self-government for tribes.  

IRINA ZHOROV: An Indian reservation is like a sovereign nation. There isn’t a separate currency; however there is, for example, a separate police force, court system, and government. But these sovereign nations are inevitably floating in U.S. territory. It’s like if Kansas was its own country. The disagreements over the extent of sovereignty for tribes has established a weird limbo, which leads to existential as well logistical issues. 

For example, if a non-Indian does something bad on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Fremont County, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs cops arrive at the scene, what happens?   

GILBERT PECK: You ask, are you Native American? Are you of Native American descent? Do you use Indian health? Any of those things that can show that they are a descendant of a recognized tribe in the United States then we can act and we have jurisdiction.

ZHOROV: That’s Gilbert Peck, a former BIA police officer on Wind River. He says in that situation, the non-Natives can say see ya. That’s why he wanted the law changed.  He says that dynamic is dangerous for both the officers and victims of crimes perpetrated by non-Natives on the reservation. It’s also inefficient if Fremont County cops have to get involved and come to the scene. The easiest place to start was with the most common violations: traffic. 

PECK: It just didn’t sit right because Native Americans can be issued citations, they would be compelled to go to court if a warrant was issued for them. The exact same violator who is non-Native, basically a free pass.   

ZHOROV: The legislature’s interim Judiciary committee agreed that something should be changed. But when a newly appointed committee took over they decided not to debate the bill. Peck says the opposition to the bill was disappointing.

PECK: The rhetoric that amped up was the same old stuff. What do we do when the Native American officer goes out of control? I mean…things where you’d wrinkle your face, ‘Really? You had to ask something like that?’ These are professional police officers; they will handle it, just like they always have everything else.

ZHOROV: However a bill that assures liability protection for state and county officers when they enforce laws on the reservation, did pass this session. Basically, lawmakers agreed to provide immunity to peace officers acting upon Natives, but not the other way around.

Expanding law enforcement and authority on the reservation in other areas hasn’t been easy, either. For example, the U.S. Congress recently passed the Violence Against Women Act, which gives tribal courts the ability to prosecute non-Native people accused of committing crimes against Native women on tribal land. All three of Wyoming’s Congressional delegates voted against it. Here’s Representative Cynthia Lummis.

CYNTHIA LUMMIS: I hate doing that, especially being Wyoming’s lone Congressional Representative who’s a woman. But given the Constitutional infirmities and the concerns that we heard from Wyoming law enforcement officials and members of the Wyoming bar, I was sufficiently concerned to believe that this bill actually needed to be vetted a little more.   

ZHOROV: Chief Judge of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribal court, John St. Clair, is frustrated by this.

JOHN ST. CLAIR: Our congressional delegation is more concerned with the rights of people who are alleged to have committed violence against our people, instead of the rights of the Indian women who are just as much citizens as far as I can tell going back to the Citizenship Act of 1924, we’re just as much citizens as anyone else. So, I just thought their concerns were misplaced.

ZHOROV: He says even if the quality of tribal justice is a concern, there are checks on it.

So why this resistance to expanded authority for the tribes? Why don’t Wyoming’s federal lawmakers want tribal authorities sentencing non-Natives? St. Clair thinks it’s pretty simple.

ST. CLAIR: It must be racist, because I don’t see any numbers, statistics, facts, to support the contention that we’re violating anyone’s civil rights, Indian, non-Indian, or anyone. But yet that’s the grounds or the reasons why our delegation has opposed this.

ZHOROV: On the state level, current Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee under whom Peck’s traffic bill died, Keith Gingery, said there were two reasons lawmakers didn’t necessarily want tribal and BIA cops writing tickets for non-Natives. The first, he said, was because people argued about where the borders of Wind River Reservation actually are. For the record, the Fremont County Planner says there are clear borders; they appear on maps and he has testified about them in court. 

But the second issue was whether tribes should be doing the law enforcement themselves, or if that should be a state duty.

KEITH GINGERY: So you would have the county Sheriff essentially doing everything on the reservation…because I think their Sheriff would be more than willing  to provide all the law enforcement needs that they need out there. 

ZHOROV: The Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police actually supported passing the traffic bill as drafted…Executive director of the Association, Byron Oedekoven, said they helped write the bill, and thought that the bill would actually decrease the workload for the busy law enforcement officers in the area of Wind River.

The reluctance to grant tribes more authority on their reservations is not just relegated to law enforcement. Wyoming’s U.S. Senator John Barrasso proposed a bill that would have made energy development on tribal lands easier for the tribes, thereby adding economic development and jobs. It failed. This year, Representative Don Young, from Alaska, sponsored a similar bill. During a Subcommittee hearing he lambasted the Department of Interior’s lack of support for the bill.

DON YOUNG: The thing that bothers me is self-determination, self-government. You ignored this totally. I don’t see this anywhere in your statement, the word self-determination, self-government, sovereignty. That’s what we want to happen. And that’s what you should want to happen. This is wrong. We talk about it, you talk about it, and we still want to pat them on the head, give them a blanket, and a side of beef. That’s wrong.

ZHOROV: Lieutenant Peck is no longer with the BIA Police Department, but he’s hoping lawmakers at least continue to talk about expanding that department’s jurisdiction.

Irina Zhorov is a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She earned her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from the University of Wyoming. In between, she worked as a photographer and writer for Philadelphia-area and national publications. Her professional interests revolve around environmental and energy reporting and she's reported on mining issues from Wyoming, Mexico, and Bolivia. She's been supported by the Dick and Lynn Cheney Grant for International Study, the Eleanor K. Kambouris Grant, and the Social Justice Research Center Research Grant for her work on Bolivian mining and Uzbek alpinism. Her work has appeared on Voice of America, National Native News, and in Indian Country Today, among other publications.
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