New Research on Tribal Sovereignty, Economic Development, and Human Security

The American Indian Law Journal has just published a new research study that provides data on key Tribal economic and human security indicators.  The research was conducted by Greg Guedel in conjunction with the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies.  

Key findings from the research include:

  • Data indicating that while revenues from Tribal gaming have provided tremendous economic resources since the California v. Cabazon decision, gaming revenue growth has decreased dramatically since 2007 and annual total gaming revenue has effectively plateaued.
  • Tribal political contributions to US Senate candidates since 1997 correlate to a 90% increase in annual BIA funding for Tribal programs, equal to more than $1 billion in additional annual funds.
  • From 2000-2010, gaming Tribes in the Pacific Northwest that did not issue per capita payments to their members did better in reducing poverty rates than the gaming Tribes that issued per capita payments.

The full article is available HERE.

In May of 2015, Foster Pepper and the University of Washington will be hosting a two-day Tribal Development Colloquium featuring Tribal leaders and national experts speaking on issues of Tribal sovereignty, economic development, and human security.  The speakers will explore development pathways that are successfully improving quality of life in Native American communities, and attendees will have the opportunity to network with key policy makers in Tribal and US governance.  The current program agenda is available HERE.


DOJ to Allow Marijuana Farming on Tribal Lands


The United States Department of Justice Department has issued a new memorandum indicating that U.S. attorneys will not prevent Tribes from growing or selling marijuana on their sovereign lands, even in states where marijuana cultivation and sales are banned. The new guidance will be implemented on a case-by-case basis and Tribes must still follow federal guidelines, said Timothy Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota and the chairman of the Attorney General's Subcommittee on Native American Issues.

Some Tribes see marijuana sales as a potential source of revenue, similar to cigarette sales and casino gambling, while others remain strongly opposed to the sale or use of marijuana on their lands. Purdon said that the majority of Native American Tribes, mindful of the painful legacy of alcohol abuse in their communities, appear to be against allowing marijuana use on their territory.

The federal government will continue to legally support those Tribes that wish to ban marijuana, even in states that now permit its sale, but the Justice Department will generally not enforce federal marijuana laws on federally recognized Tribes that choose to allow it, so long as Tribes meet eight federal guidelines specified in the memorandum. "The Tribes have the sovereign right to set the code on their reservations," Purdon said.

Tribes Resist Opening of Sacred Rattlesnake Mountain to Public

As reported by Tom Banse of KUOW radio, the Yakama Nation and neighboring tribes have objected to a move by Congress to offer public access to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain, a place tribal members consider sacred. Rattlesnake Mountain is located within the Hanford Reach National Monument near Richland, Washington.

Republican Congressman Doc Hastings authored the requirement that the federal government provide some degree of public access. The provision is now part of a defense spending bill that is expected to pass.

Access to the mountain is currently highly restricted. Philip Rigdon supervises the Yakama Nation Department of Natural Resources, and says the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain should remain off-limits to the general public.

"The mountain is a place that is critical to our culture, our religion and the ceremonies that we continue to perform today,” Rigdon said.

Representative Hastings had long sought to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide greater access to Rattlesnake Mountain. The House unanimously passed such a bill in 2013, but it died without a hearing in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

"The views of Indian tribes are legitimate, and they have a right to be heard and consulted," Hastings said during an earlier House committee hearing. "But the views of local communities and all citizens also deserve to be heard and listened to -- and there is overwhelming local public support for access to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain. The public should expect that if they can visit the summit of Mt. Rainier, then they certainly should be allowed to the summit of Rattlesnake Mountain," Hastings said as he described the "unparalled views" of the Columbia Basin from the ridge.

The indigenous name for Rattlesnake Mountain is "Laliik." Rigdon said Columbia Plateau tribes such as the Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce want to preserve the "spiritual" qualities of a holy place. "It's astonishing to me that we continue this total disregard for our religion, our ceremonies and this place that has provided for us," concluded Rigdon. "Laliik is our Mount Sinai," Yakama tribal Chairman JoDe Goudy wrote in a recent letter to U.S. senators. "When our Long House leaders feel that a young adult is ready and worthy, Laliik is where they are sent to fast and to have vision quests. This is not a place for Airstreams and Winnebagos."


Cobell Land Buyback Program Accelerating

The Associated Press reports that the number of Tribal communities participating in the BIA’s $1.9 billion land buyback program is increasing, with 21 communities in 12 states slated to join program by 2017, according to Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor. That will bring the total number of Tribal communities participating in the program to 42.

“Right now the program is accelerating,” Connor said. “Our outreach efforts and coordination with tribal leaders and government is becoming more effective.”

The buyback program was a central piece of a $3.4 billion settlement of the Cobell class-action lawsuit. The program aims to buy land with “fractionated” interests and consolidate ownership of the parcels under tribal governments. “We have some plots of land that have 500 owners on one, little 20-acre tract,” said Grant Stafne, a member of the executive board for the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation in northeast Montana. “We would have control over our land instead of individual Indians. It would make it easier to lease land.”

In the buyback’s first year, $225 million was paid to individual Native Americans for restoring the equivalent of 375,000 acres to tribal governments, Connor said.

Fort Belknap Tribal President Mark Azure said Thursday that a cooperative agreement with federal officials had eased some of his earlier concerns about the program. But Azure said Fort Belknap leaders still have too little say over which parcels are chosen. He added some landowners remain reluctant to participate in the federal program, but if the tribe had more control over it those landowners might be willing to sell. “That’s where we as tribes hopefully provide answers to all of their questions,” he said. “They would lean more toward tribal government in bringing in answers that are going to make sense.”

Roughly 245,000 owners of fractionated land on 150 reservations are eligible to participate in the program.


Navajo Nation Imposes New Tax On Junk Food

The sales tax on cookies, chips, sodas and other junk food sold within the territory of the Navajo Nation is set to increase. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly signed legislation that raises by 2 percentage points the sales tax on food with little to no nutritional value.

Tribal advocates for the junk-food tax sought a bill that could serve as a model for Tribal communities to improve the rates of diabetes and obesity among Native Americans. "We want them to think twice about buying healthy foods instead of soda pop, potato chips and the junk food," said Gloria Begay, an advocate of the tax. "The effort is really much more in the message of Navajo people making better choices for quality foods."

The bill cited statistics from the Navajo-area Indian Health Service that said about one-third of Navajo citizens are diabetic or pre-diabetic, and the obesity rate for some age groups is as high as 60 percent. Diabetes was the fourth-leading cause of death in the Navajo area from 2003 to 2005, the health service said.

The $1 million-a-year that the tax is expected to generate will pay for projects including farmer's markets, vegetable gardens and wellness and exercise equipment in the tribe's 110 communities. To increase the affordability of healthier foods, another bill to eliminate the 5 percent sales tax on fresh fruit and vegetables sold on the Navajo Nation went into effect October 1.


President Obama Proclaims National Native American Heritage Month



Every year, our Nation pauses to reflect on the profound ways the First Americans have shaped our country's character and culture. The first stewards of our environment, early voices for the values that define our Nation, and models of government to our Founding Fathers -- American Indians and Alaska Natives helped build the very fabric of America. Today, their spirit and many contributions continue to enrich our communities and strengthen our country. During National Native American Heritage Month, we honor their legacy, and we recommit to strengthening our nation-to-nation partnerships.

As we celebrate the rich traditions of the original peoples of what is now the United States, we cannot forget the long and unfortunate chapters of violence, discrimination, and deprivation they had to endure. For far too long, the heritage we honor today was disrespected and devalued, and Native Americans were told their land, religion, and language were not theirs to keep. We cannot ignore these events or erase their consequences for Native peoples -- but as we work together to forge a brighter future, the lessons of our past can help reaffirm the principles that guide our Nation today.

In a spirit of true partnership and mutual trust, my Administration is committed to respecting the sovereignty of tribal nations and upholding our treaty obligations, which honor our nation-to-nation relationship of peace and friendship over the centuries. We have worked to fairly settle longstanding legal disputes and provide justice to those who experienced discrimination. We have taken unprecedented steps to strengthen tribal courts, especially when it comes to criminal sentencing and prosecuting individuals who commit violence against Native American women. And next month, my Administration will host our sixth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, part of our ongoing effort to promote meaningful collaboration with tribal leaders as we fight to give all our children the tomorrow they deserve.

Today, as community and tribal leaders, members of our Armed Forces, and drivers of progress and economic growth, American Indians and Alaska Natives are working to carry forward their proud history, and my Administration is dedicated to expanding pathways to success for Native Americans. To increase opportunity in Indian Country, we are investing in roads and high-speed Internet and supporting job training and tribal colleges and universities. The Affordable Care Act provides access to quality, affordable health insurance, and it permanently reauthorized the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which provides care to many Native Americans. And because the health of tribal nations depends on the health of tribal lands, my Administration is partnering with Native American leaders to protect these lands in a changing climate.

Every American, including every Native American, deserves the chance to work hard and get ahead. This month, we recognize the limitless potential of our tribal nations, and we continue our work to build a world where all people are valued and no child ever has to wonder if he or she has a place in our society.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 2014 as National Native American Heritage Month. I call upon all Americans to commemorate this month with appropriate programs and activities, and to celebrate November 28, 2014, as Native American Heritage Day.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirty-first day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand fourteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-ninth.



Methane Gas Cloud Hovers Over Navajo Lands


NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan

Space-based measurements have revealed a gigantic cloud of methane gas hovering over a coal production region on and near the Navajo Nation. This methane “hot spot” covers 2,500 square miles near the Four Corners intersection of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. It was reported in a study released on October 9 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Methane is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. It can be produced from industrial activities, agriculture, forest fires, and the mining and processing of fossil fuels. In this case the sources include heavy production of a fuel called coal-bed methane, which exists as a gas in the pores and cracks of coal deposits, as well as emissions from two power plants well known for their pollution: the on-reservation Four Corners Power Plant and the neighboring San Juan Power Plant.

“Both methane and carbon dioxide warm the climate,” explained Manvendra Dubey, a climate scientist at the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Lab and one of the study authors. “Methane, if you leak it, has a 10-year lifespan in the atmosphere compared to hundreds of years for carbon dioxide. But the warming potential is very high.”

Although the scientific community hasn’t been able to agree on how much methane in the atmosphere is too much, “everyone agrees emitting methane at the high rates we are is not a good thing,” Dubey said.


Historical Artifacts Halt World's Largest Tunnel Project

The Seattle Times is reporting that workers on the Highway 99 tunnel project on Seattle’s waterfront, the largest underground road tunneling project ever undertaken, have encountered a collection of shells that could indicate the presence of historic activity from indigenous tribes.

Archaeologists with the Washington State Department of Transportation noticed the deposit and ordered the tunneling contractors to stop work. An archaeological investigation will be undertaken to seek further evidence of historical settlements and activity by indigenous communities. Any such finds are to be disclosed to the Tulalip, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie and Duwamish tribes. DOT said it is presently notifying the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, tribal governments, and the Federal Highway Administration.


Legal Battle Keeps Jim Thorpe's Remains Far From Home


As reported in Sports Illustrated, the family of sports legend Jim Thorpe has lost the latest round in a protracted legal battle to have his remains returned to his homeland of the Sac and Fox in central Oklahoma. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by a U.S. District judge that authorized Thorpe's remains to be relocated to Oklahoma. His body is currently buried in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania – at town with which he had no connection during his lifetime, but which changed its name to “Jim Thorpe” after his death specifically so he would be buried there.

The Thorpe family is of Sac and Fox ancestry, and Jim Thorpe was born in Oklahoma. After attending the Carlisle Academy, he became renown as the greatest athlete of 20th Century for his achievements in track, lacrosse, professional football, baseball, and winning gold medals in the Pentathalon and Decathalon at the Stockholm Olympics. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963 as part of its inaugural class after a pro playing career that lasted from 1915 to 1928, and the annual award given to college football's top defensive back is the Jim Thorpe Award.

Thorpe's son Jack sued the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, in 2010 to have his father's remains moved to Sac and Fox land in central Oklahoma, Thorpe's home state, and Jack's brothers Bill and Richard took over the suit after Jack's death in 2011. Upon Thorpe's death in 1953, the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk in eastern Pennsylvania merged and named the new town after the athlete in order to have him be buried there, even though Thorpe had no connection to the area. Thorpe's sons claimed in their case that Thorpe's third wife, who wasn't their mother, agreed to the arrangement for financial reasons.

At Thorpe's burial site in the town, two statues and signage surround his tomb and comprise a monument to him.


Tribal Payday Loans Under Fire In Federal Courts



United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has denied a request by two Native American Tribes to stop New York State’s top financial regulator from cracking down on their online lending businesses. The decision comes more than a year after the Tribes sued Benjamin M. Lawsky, Superintendent of the state’s Department of Financial Services, arguing that he had overstepped his jurisdictional bounds in trying to regulate business activity that takes place on Tribal reservations in Oklahoma and Michigan.

The ruling upholds a decision from Judge Richard Sullivan of Federal District Court in Manhattan, who suggested that once tribal businesses go online to attract consumers - many of whom live far beyond the borders of their reservations - the Tribes effectively lose their rights to operate as sovereign nations.

In their lawsuit, the Otoe Missouria Tribe in Red Rock, Oklahoma and the Lac Vieux Desert Bank of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians in Watersmeet, Michigan argued that their sovereign status shielded them from the reach of New York State. The appeals court disagreed, outlining in a 33-page opinion that the borrowers reside in New York and received the loans “certainly without traveling to the reservation.” The decision is the latest setback for the Tribes. Last year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rejected an argument from three Tribal online lenders that argued their sovereign status protected them from an investigation by the agency.

The lawsuit is continuing in federal district court, and the opinion does note that “a court might ultimately conclude that… the transaction being regulated by New York could be regarded as on‐reservation, based on the extent to which one side of the transaction is firmly rooted on the reservation.”