Indian Health Care Improvement Act survives along with Affordable Care Act

Today's Supreme Court opinion upholding the constitutionality of the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act also upholds the Indian Health Care Improvement Act ("IHCIA").  IHCIA, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, provides broad support and funding for Indian health programs and for tribal members.

Indian health care advocates were concerned that the IHCIA would fall along with the Affordable Care Act if the Supreme Court struck it down, and had argued in amicus briefs that the court should sever and preserve the IHCIA language if it decided to strike the individual mandate.  Because the court upheld the greater law, it did not have to rule on severability issues.

Tribes Seek Protection Of Native Health Care Gains In "Obamacare" Lawsuit

The National Indian Health Board and a consortium of Tribes and Tribal agencies have filed an amicus brief in the “Obamacare” lawsuit, where a federal judge in Florida ruled the federal government’s landmark healthcare reform unconstitutional. The lawsuit was filed after President Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which is designed to provide health care coverage to all Americans.

The primary issue in the lawsuit, which is now on appeal, is whether the Constitution allows the federal government to require individual Americans to purchase health care insurance. Over two dozen states joined together to oppose the reform legislation, arguing that the federal government does not have the power to compel individuals to purchase health care insurance. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Florida, and the trial judge ruled the legislation unconstitutional. The matter is now being reviewed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Within the federal health care reform legislation, there are sections that provide significant benefits for Native American health care programs. The legislation permanently re-authorized the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which provides funding and administrative support for health care in Native communities throughout the country. In their amicus brief, Tribes have asserted that the portions of the health care legislation that impact Native Americans are constitutional and should be “severed” from any portions of the legislation that are ultimately determined to be unconstitutional. That would allow for funding and other improvements to Tribal health care to continue even if other portions of the new law are overturned.

Interestingly, the portions of the law applicable to Native American health care actually provide and exemption for Native Americans from the individual insurance purchase requirement – which is consistent with the goals of the states seeking to have the new laws overturned. This provides a potential opportunity for agreement between the states and Tribes, where all sides could concur on the validity of the sections that improve health care for Native communities.

President Obama Announces US Support For The UN Declaration On The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples

The President has announced a change to the United States’ status as the sole holdout in supporting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, stating:

“And as you know, in April we announced that we were reviewing our position on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And today I can announce that the United States is lending its support to this Declaration.”

The President’s remarks came during the close of the second Tribal Nations Conference held by the White House. His full statement on the Declaration and other Tribal issues can be viewed HERE.

While the statement declares a change in US policy, there will be much practical work required to implement the provisions of the Declaration and assess its impact on relations between the federal government and Tribal communities.

USDA Settles Native American Farmer Discrimination Lawsuit for $760 Million

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced an historic agreement to settle a decade-long class action lawsuit known as Keepseagle v. Vilsack, wherein Native American farmers and ranchers alleged discrimination in the USDA's farm loan program dating back to 1981.

Under the agreement, the USDA will pay $680 million in damages to thousands of Native American farmers and ranchers and forgive up to $80 million worth of outstanding farm loan debt. The settlement also initiates new programs to improve USDA's farm loan services for Native Americans. Those initiatives include the creation of a Native American Farmer and Rancher Council, where top USDA officials and Native American advocates will collaborate to make USDA's programs more accessible for Native Americans farmers and ranchers, as well as enhanced delivery of technical assistance to Native American borrowers, the creation of sub-offices on tribal lands, a systematic review of the farm loan program rules to improve accessibility to Native Americans and other measures designed to improve the provision of farm loan services to Native Americans.

The Keepseagle lawsuit alleged that Native American farmers and ranchers were denied the same opportunities as white farmers to obtain low-interest rate loans from USDA. Congress has charged the USDA with serving as the "lender of last resort" for family farmers who can't obtain credit from commercial banks. According to an expert report prepared by a former USDA economist, Native Americans suffered actual economic losses amounting to $776 million between 1981 and 2007 as a result of receiving less than their fair share of credit opportunities from the USDA.

Lead plaintiffs Marilyn and George Keepseagle, ranchers in Fort Yates, N.D.,said "We have been waiting nearly three decades for this day to come. This settlement will help thousands of Native Americans who are still farming and ranching. But more important, through this settlement we will leave to our children and grandchildren a farm loan system far more responsive to our community than the system we inherited from our parents."

The settlement has three major components:
1) Payment of $680 million in damages to class members for the economic losses they suffered due to the denial of loans or loan servicing by the USDA.

2) The USDA will forgive up to $80 million in debt currently held by class members who succeed in obtaining damages. Once the Court gives preliminary approval to the agreement, the USDA will establish a moratorium on foreclosures, debt accelerations and debt offsets not already referred to the Treasury Department. The moratorium will last until the debt relief process has concluded and class members' debt has been forgiven. After the debt relief is provided, USDA will engage in a round of loan servicing for all class members who are delinquent on any outstanding USDA farm loan debt.

3) Changes to USDA's farm loan program to improve the delivery and responsiveness to Native American farmers and ranchers, including through the creation of the Native American Farmer and Rancher Council, a new federal advisory committee. The new Council will have 15 members, 11 of whom will be Native Americans or represent Native American interests and four of whom will be top USDA officials. Members will meet at least twice a year for the next five years to discuss how to make USDA's programs more accessible for Native Americans farmers and ranchers, including changes to Farm Service Administration (FSA) regulations and internal guidance. The Council will report its recommendations directly to senior USDA officials.

In addition to the Council, the USDA will: 1) create 10 to 15 USDA regional sub-offices that will provide education and technical assistance to Native American farmers and ranchers and their advocates; 2) undertake a systematic review of its farm loan policies to determine how its regulations and policies can be reformed to better assist Native American farmers and ranchers; 3) create a customer guide on applying for credit from the USDA; 4) create the Office of the Ombudsperson to address concerns of all socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers; and, 5) regularly collect and report data on how well Native Americans fare under USDA's farm loan programs.
 

Does Supreme Court Nominee Kagan Have A Firm Grasp Of Indian Legal Issues?

Scholars have begun to question the Indian law credentials of Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama's nominee to the to the U.S. Supreme Court. Other than serving on the American Indian Empowerment Fund, which was established by the Oneida Nation, Kagan lacks a record on Indian law or Indian issues. Since joining the Obama administration as Solicitor General at the Department of Justice, she has written briefs in at least five Indian law cases. All of them went against tribal interests.

A particular fact of note regarding Kagan’s approach to Native legal issues is that she never filled a fully-endowed Indian law post at Harvard Law School, where she served as dean. The Oneida Nation of New York funded the The Oneida Indian Nation Professorship of Law with a $3 million donation. The position was created in 2003, under the condition that Harvard hire a full-time, tenured faculty member dedicated to Indian law. Kagan never hired a permanent, tenured faculty member dedicated to Indian law in her six years at the school.
 

National Native American Bar Association Issues Statement On Kagan Nomination To Supreme Court

May 11, 2010

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Washington, DC 20500

RE: Solicitor General Elena Kagan’s Nomination to the Supreme Court

Dear Mr. President:

Congratulations on your nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the United State Supreme Court. We are pleased you chose a woman, and clearly General Kagan is a well qualified jurist.
NNABA does not currently have a position on General Kagan’s nomination. We are not yet familiar with her experience with Tribal nations or Federal Indian law. However, we very much look forward to hearing from General Kagan about her views on the Constitutional status of Tribes and the protection of Native American rights. We would like to extend an invitation for General Kagan to meet with NNABA and invite her to Indian Country to visit one of our Nations, to visit our Tribal courts, and meet with our elected Tribal leaders.

Importance of Working Knowledge of Federal Indian law.

Due to the unique Constitutional status of Native American Tribes, a disproportionate percentage of cases before the Supreme Court deal with Tribes and Indian law issues. In addition, federal court decisions often disproportionately affect Natives. Most Indian reservation lands continue to be under “federal trust” and federal criminal law applies in conjunction with tribal law. The Supreme Court oversees this relationship with Tribes and the Federal treaty and trust responsibility to Tribal citizens. There are over 560 federally-recognized Tribes in the United States, located in 35 out of the 50 states.

No Native American Supreme Court Justice, Federal Judge, Or Supreme Court Clerk.

A Native American has never served on the Supreme Court, there is not currently a Native on the federal bench and to the best our knowledge there have been almost no Native American Supreme Court clerks.

NNABA continues to be hopeful that your administration will nominate a Native to the federal bench, and we appreciate any efforts to ensure that all of your federal nominees have a strong working knowledge of Federal Indian law.

Respectfully,

Lael Echo-Hawk
President, National Native American Bar Association

Obama Asked To Appoint Native American Supreme Court Justice

Citing the fact that there is not a single Native American judge in any of the 866 federal judicial positions in the United States, the National Native American Bar Association has sent a letter to President Obama asking him to appoint a Native American to succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens on the US Supreme Court.  A full copy of the letter can be read HERE.

Will New Supreme Court Justice Reverse The Trend Against Tribes?

With Justice John Paul Stevens announcing his retirement from the US Supreme Court this year, the Obama administration will have the opportunity to appoint a second new jurist to the bench. The Tribal Supreme Court Project is hoping the new appointee will help reverse a disturbing trend – Tribal interests losing nearly every case that comes before the Court.

"We view this Court as not favorable on our issues," explained Richard Guest, senior staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund. "We had a winning percentage from 2001 to 2005 but now we're back to a situation where we are zero for five."

There is a concern that certain justices have an agenda in Indian law cases, he added, noting that Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. has been quoted as asking what is so special about Indian tribes and their relationship to the United States. "If this Court grants review, it appears to not only look to decide the case in front of it, but to extend any ruling to future cases," said Guest.

This view is supported by a 2009 empirical study done by Matthew Fletcher of Michigan State University College of Law: "Factbound and Splitless: Certiorari and Indian Law." From 1959, considered the beginning of the modern era of federal Indian law, to 1987, when the Supreme Court decided the major Indian gaming case, California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, reported Fletcher, Indians and Indian tribes won nearly 60 percent of federal Indian law cases. Since the Cabazon decision, the Supreme Court has decided against tribal interests in more than 75 percent of cases.
 

9th Circuit's Maggi Decision - You're Only An "Indian" If The US Government Says So

The latest foray by federal courts into the anachronistic (and often bizarre) legal analysis of who qualifies as an “Indian” comes from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in its decision in the case of United States v. Maggi. The bottom line: unless you are a member of a federally-recognized Tribe, you are not an “Indian” under federal law.

As with most of the cases that analyze the issue of who is an “Indian”, the Maggi case arises from a dispute over whether a federal court or Tribal court has jurisdiction over a person accused of committing a crime on Tribal lands. Under current federal law, Tribal courts can only hold jurisdiction over people who qualify as “Indian”.  Tribes are not allowed to exercise jurisdiction over people who are not considered “Indian” by the federal government -- making Tribal courts the last legal venue in the US where race determines access to justice.

In determining that the defendants in the Maggi case were not “Indian” and therefore not subject to Tribal court jurisdiction despite committing crimes on Tribal land, the 9th Circuit quoted from LaPier v. McCormick, 986 F.2d 303 (9th Cir. 1993):

“Is the Indian group with which (a person) claims affiliation a federally recognized Indian tribe? If the answer is no, the inquiry ends. A defendant whose only claim of membership or affiliation is with an Indian group that is not a federally acknowledged Indian tribe cannot be an Indian for criminal jurisdiction purposes.”

The extreme difficulty for unrecognized Tribes to obtain federal recognition is well known – it can take decades just to receive a “no” from the federal government. The Maggi decision reinforces the courts’ brutal concept that unless you’re a member of a federally recognized Tribe, not only are you unable to obtain sovereign rights through your Tribe – you’re not even considered an “Indian”.
 

US Census Promises Special Focus On Native Population Count

The once-per-decade United States Census kicks off in April 2010, and the manager for the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Indian/Alaska Native Program is leading a focused effort to obtain an accurate count of the Native American and Alaska Native populations within the United States.

Program Director Curtis Zunigha, a member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Oklahoma, is already undertaking population counts in isolated sectors of Alaska, even though Census Day is April 1. “We’re actually beginning our remote Alaska operation in January. Many of the Alaska Natives engage in subsistence hunting and fishing in the spring in camps that our enumerators wouldn’t be able to find and they’re not going to get anything in the mail, so we’re going in early to the Native village of Noorvik. They’re a partner and the Tribal leadership has agreed to host the very first enumeration.”

Partnership is the key to a successful census, Zunigha said.

“After the first enumeration in Noorvik, we’ll be going village to village all across those remote areas all through the State of Alaska and getting these people counted early. And all the work that’s gone into building relationships and partnerships with the Native tribes and villages, all the outreach that’s gone into it to make people aware of the census, hiring people from the villages to be enumerators – all of that is a model of what we’re doing all across Indian country. If it happens the way we’ve planned in Noorvik, I expect a very positive response from Indian country over all.”

Data from the census is a primary element in determining the distribution of more than $400 billion in federal funding nationwide. For Native communities, that means funding for Indian Child Welfare, Children and Family Education, employment assistance, food distribution, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing, community development block grants, and numerous other programs. The data will affect policy and resource allocations for human service programs for Native communities throughout the country.

According to Zunigha, one of the most challenging aspects of census taking in Native communities is establishing trust.

“The whole idea of mistrust of the federal government – that’s no secret in Indian country – but I think the best thing to overcome that is to emphasis the partnership aspect of the way we’re doing the census in Indian country.”

“Tribal leaders know true tribal sovereignty and self-determination means you don’t let somebody else come in and figure out this data for us. We do it ourselves and we can do our own planning and development for business and communities. I fully expect tribal demographers and data analysts to be using the reports that will be generated. You can bet the people like Harrahs and Bally's and other casino companies are using census data to do long range planning for site locations and businesses. So a good and successful census for Indian country only helps support tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”

Waiting Game: Tribal Law And Order Act In Senate Limbo

 

While crime continues to be a blight on Native lands, The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009 (S.797) is currently awaiting action in the United States Senate. This bill was considered in committee, which has recommended it be considered by the Senate as a whole. Although it has been placed on a calendar of business, the order in which legislation is considered and voted on is determined by the majority party leadership, which is currently led by Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada. In the midst of intensive debate regarding health care reform, the chances for the Act to become law are unclear.

The Act would amend the Indian Law Enforcement Reform Act to make a variety of changes to increase Tribes' law enforcement powers, and increase federal powers and responsibilities regarding crimes on Native land. The Act’s provisions include:

(1) Allowing federal officials, with the consent of the Tribe, to investigate offenses against Tribal criminal laws;

(2) Providing technical assistance and training to Tribal law enforcement officials regarding use of the National Criminal Information Center database;

(3) Requiring federal and local officials, when they decline to investigate crimes on Native land, to report to Native officials and requiring such officials, when they decline to prosecute, to turn over evidence to Native officials;

(4) Establishing in the criminal division of the Department of Justice an Office of Indian Country Crime to develop, enforce, and administer federal criminal laws in Tribal territories;

(5) Authorizing, at the request of a Tribe, concurrent federal-Tribal jurisdiction;

(6) Authorizing grants to state, Tribal, and local governments that enter into cooperative agreements, including agreements relating to mutual aid, hot pursuit of suspects, and cross-deputization;

(7) Requiring the Attorney General to allow Tribal and Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement agencies to directly access and enter information into federal criminal information databases (under current law, such access is limited); and

(8) Increasing the criminal sentences Tribal courts may impose.

The bill is supported by numerous agencies including the National Congress of American Indians, National American Indian Court Judges Association, National Indian Gaming Association, and Amnesty International. No organizations have registered a formal objection to the legislation.
 

President Obama's Memorandum On Tribal Relations

In conjunction with the 5 November 2009 Tribal Nations conference, President Obama has issued a White House Memorandum on Tribal Consultation to all executive departments and federal agencies. The Memorandum can be accessed here, and its full text is below:

The United States has a unique legal and political relationship with Indian tribal governments, established through and confirmed by the Constitution of the United States, treaties, statutes, executive orders, and judicial decisions. In recognition of that special relationship, pursuant to Executive Order 13175 of November 6, 2000, executive departments and agencies (agencies) are charged with engaging in regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration with tribal officials in the development of Federal policies that have tribal implications, and are responsible for strengthening the government-to-government relationship between the United States and Indian tribes.

History has shown that failure to include the voices of tribal officials in formulating policy affecting their communities has all too often led to undesirable and, at times, devastating and tragic results. By contrast, meaningful dialogue between Federal officials and tribal officials has greatly improved Federal policy toward Indian tribes. Consultation is a critical ingredient of a sound and productive Federal-tribal relationship.

My Administration is committed to regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration with tribal officials in policy decisions that have tribal implications including, as an initial step, through complete and consistent implementation of Executive Order 13175. Accordingly, I hereby direct each agency head to submit to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), within 90 days after the date of this memorandum, a detailed plan of actions the agency will take to implement the policies and directives of Executive Order 13175. This plan shall be developed after consultation by the agency with Indian tribes and tribal officials as defined in Executive Order 13175. I also direct each agency head to submit to the Director of the OMB, within 270 days after the date of this memorandum, and annually thereafter, a progress report on the status of each action included in its plan together with any proposed updates to its plan.

Each agency's plan and subsequent reports shall designate an appropriate official to coordinate implementation of the plan and preparation of progress reports required by this memorandum. The Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and the Director of the OMB shall review agency plans and subsequent reports for consistency with the policies and directives of Executive Order 13175.

In addition, the Director of the OMB, in coordination with the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, shall submit to me, within 1 year from the date of this memorandum, a report on the implementation of Executive Order 13175 across the executive branch based on the review of agency plans and progress reports. Recommendations for improving the plans and making the tribal consultation process more effective, if any, should be included in this report.
The terms "Indian tribe," "tribal officials," and "policies that have tribal implications" as used in this memorandum are as defined in Executive Order 13175.  The Director of the OMB is hereby authorized and directed to publish this memorandum in the Federal Register.

This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person. Executive departments and agencies shall carry out the provisions of this memorandum to the extent permitted by law and consistent with their statutory and regulatory authorities and their enforcement mechanisms.

BARACK OBAMA
 

After Federal Recognition Is Denied: "Why Didn't They Just Tell Us 'No' 30 Years Ago?"

You have your community and your place to go.  We don't have that.  But we're still together…


They've got their rules, and you've got to fit into the slot.   But we know who we are.


It kind of hurts, naturally, but it's not the end of the line…

These sentiments were expressed by members of Montana's Little Shell Tribe, after receiving notice this week that their petition for federal recognition had been denied – more than 30 years after it was first filed.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ 242-page rejection decision acknowledged that 89 percent of the Little Shell can trace their lineage to the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians, but stated the Little Shell had failed to show enough "cohesion" during the early 1900s, after many of the Tribe's members had been uprooted and migrated between northern Montana and southern Canada. The Tribe has not had a secure homeland since the late 1860s, when Chief Little Shell and his people were excluded from a federal treaty signed with related Tribes.

As discussed previously on this site, the BIA uses an extremely complex and subjective set of criteria in analyzing petitions for federal recognition. For Little Shell, the BIA decided that members of the Tribe in Montana lived primarily in "already existing, largely multiethnic settlements." According to the BIA, "In none of these multiethnic settlements did the petitioner's ancestors constitute a majority or even a significant percentage of the population." Little Shell’s petition was thus denied based on a perceived lack of social and political cohesion.

For Tribes like Little Shell, the next step in the struggle for recognition is to seek legislative backing in Congress, in the hope that recognition can be obtained through pressure and laws enacted by elected representatives. Hopes for progress in this area were briefly raised by the announcement of President Obama's upcoming Tribal Nations conference in November. Unfortunately, invitations to the event were only sent to a select group of Tribes – those that already possess federal recognition.
 

ACLU Alleges Widespread Voting Rights Problems In Native Communities

In its new report entitled "Voting Rights In Indian Country", the American Civil Liberties Union states that Native Americans continue to face a a variety of discriminatory election practices, including: at large elections; redistricting plans that diluted Native American voting strength; the failure to comply with one person, one vote; unfounded allegations of election fraud on Indian reservations; discriminatory voter registration procedures; onerous identification requirements for voting; the lack of minority language assistance in voting; and the refusal to comply with the preclearance provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.  The report's findings are based on the ACLU's investigations conducted for voting rights litigation cases in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

The report recounts a litany of abuses endured by Native communities throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, and draws a line of impact to the present day.

One consequence is a depressed socio-economic status that limits the ability of tribal members to participate effectively in local, state, and national elections and to enforce the anti-discrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act and other federal laws protecting minority voting rights. Voting is significantly polarized along racial lines, and little meaningful interaction exists between the Indian and non-Indian communities, especially in the towns and communities that border the reservations. This lack of interaction and access to the majority community makes it very difficult for Indians to elect candidates of their choice to office in jurisdictions in which they are a numerical minority.

Indian political participation is further diminished by the disproportionate number of tribal members disfranchised for commission of criminal offenses. There is a pattern of racial profiling of Indians by law enforcement officers, the targeting of Indians for prosecution of serious crimes, and the imposition of lengthier prison sentences upon Indian defendants. These injustices result in the higher incarceration of Indians and dilute the overall voting strength of Indian communities.

Obama To Host National Tribal Nations Conference - 5 November 2009

(Resource Centre for The Rights Of Indigenous Peoples)

President Barack Obama will host a Tribal Nations Conference discussing issues of importance to Native Americans on November 5, the White House announced Monday.  Representatives from each the country’s 564 federally recognized tribes will be invited to participate.


“I look forward to hearing directly from the leaders in Indian Country about what my administration can do to not only meet their needs, but help improve their lives and the lives of their peoples,” Obama said in a written statement.  “This conference will serve as part of the ongoing and important consultation process that I value, and further strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship.”
 

American Indian Movement Statement On Free Speech And Indigenous Rights

The Grand Governing Council of the American Indian Movement (AIM) has released the following statement in response to President Obama's recent address before the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

In President Obama's speech to the United Nations on September 23, 2009, he spoke of a 'new direction'. Two years ago, four solitary nations voted against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, they were Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States of America. The Australian government has since reversed its vote and now support the international human rights standard toward Indigenous people. The American Indian Movement asks the question of the Obama Administration: Will his administration recognize and support the international standard approved by the vast majority of the world's nations?

The United Nations' 64th year brings world leaders together to our sacred homeland to discuss the effects of the world's problems to humankind. The American Indian Movement respects the right of all world leaders to speak. We support the right of Moammar Al Gathafi, leader of Libya. We respect the right of Evo Moralas, President of Bolivia. We respect the right of Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. We respect the right of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran. We respect the right to speak at the United Nations of all the world leaders visiting our homeland.

We often talk in terms of the first world, or the west; or the second world, the east; or the third world, or the non-aligned nations. Another important dimension to this concept is the fourth world of natural and Indigenous people. Peoples whose populations oftentimes go beyond geo-political boundaries. While these struggles have been going on for hundreds of years, the international community has, for the most part, ignored this reality. One of the greatest crimes against humanity occurred right here in the United States of America. Support for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is a start to right this great wrong.

AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT GRAND GOVERNING COUNCIL
MINISTRY FOR INFORMATION
P.O. Box 13521
Minneapolis MN 55414
612/ 721-3914 . fax 612/ 721-7826
Email: aimggc@worldnet.att.net
Web Address: http://www.aimovement.org

Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder American Indian Movement
612.251.5836

Bill Means, International Indian Treaty Council
612.386.4030

Chief Terrance Nelson, Vice Chairman American Indian Movement
204.782.4827
 

Cohesive Tribal Government Is Critical For Economic Development

(Ken Lambert/Seattle Times)

While the appropriateness of government intervention in private business is a hotly-debated topic around the world, a clear truth is emerging closer to home: cohesive and sound governance is a crucial element for economic development in Native American communities. The proof comes both from success stories such as Tulalip and Pechanga, as well as the cautionary tale currently playing out within the Snoqualmie Tribe.

The Snoqualmie Tribe regained federal recognition in 1999 and last November opened a showpiece casino a half-hour from downtown Seattle The casino, financed with $375 million in debt, was conceived as a means of bringing prosperity to the Tribe's approximately 600 members. Instead, political infighting has brought turmoil, reduced revenue, and uncertainty regarding the Tribe’s economic future.

The problems stem from socio-political divisions that divided the Tribe’s governing body and rendered it unable to function effectively. "They were a split council and would not come together for joint meetings off and on since May," said Judy Joseph, superintendent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Puget Sound Agency. "To maintain a government-to-government relationship, they have to be a viable Tribal government," Joseph said. "If there is any question about that, it causes red flags to go up, and they were split, they were not meeting."  In August, the Tribe's administrative offices were padlocked and some of its federal funds frozen. Elders stepped in to dissolve the council and take charge until new elections could be held — but they had no constitutional authority to do that. The Tribe was facing the prospect of the U.S. government assuming administrative control of the Tribal government. The BIA offered mediation this month, which resulted in reinstatement of the council that was in place before the disputed May election.

Meanwhile, the new casino has only been producing one-fourth of the revenue originally budgeted, and its operations are mired in administrative and regulatory problems. Unresolved federal audit findings could expose the Tribe to significant liability, and until recently federal funds allocations to Snoqualmie were frozen by the U.S. government. To address these significant issues, the Tribe's general membership will meet this month to consider election procedures and set a date for a new council election.

While dissension and differences of opinion are common for any political entity, the need for Tribes to maintain a solid, functioning government structure is of paramount importance for both political and economic purposes. Both the federal government and private investors are wary of contributing capital in places where leadership is in doubt, making it crucial for Tribes to demonstrate that their decision making bodies and procedures are stable.

New Federal Policy May Open Door For Off-Reservation Casinos

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the Department of Interior is reconsidering a Bush administration policy that limited Tribes from developing off-reservation casinos unless the sites were within “commuting distance” of the reservation. The new policy would eliminate that proximity requirement and allow Tribes to build casinos on trust land farther from their reservations – and thereby likely closer to larger population centers that would offer more customers. Some areas Tribes are considering are actually on their ancestral lands, but were separated from the Tribe’s main land base through 19th Century treaties.

Over 20 Tribal casinos on non-reservation land exist, and about 20 tribes have off-reservation plans in the works. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs of Oregon want to develop a casino along the Columbia River Gorge, and the St. Regis Mohawks have plans for a site in the Catskill Mountains, about 350 miles away from the Tribe's reservation -- but less than a two-hour drive from New York City. Some state governors such as David Paterson of New York and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California have come out in favor of certain projects in recent months.

Despite concerns about the economy, some off-reservation casino projects near major population centers have been able to line up financing for construction and operations. A private investment company that has financed start-ups of major Indian casinos in Connecticut and New York, is acquiring a near 50% stake in Empire Resorts Inc., the company that has been working with the St. Regis Mohawks on plans for a casino in Monticello, N.Y.

Tribes across the country have opened hundreds of casinos since the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that loosened state restrictions on Tribal gaming. In 1988, Congress authorized development off-reservation casinos. Interestingly, some Tribes that developed the first casinos are now working to block off-reservation gaming by other Tribes, and Senators from Nevada, California and Arizona wrote Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to oppose off-reservation gaming, saying it "violates the spirit" of Tribal gaming law.

Tribal Casino Defaults Raise Big Questions On Bankruptcy Laws

The economic downturn is opening some previously-uncharted legal territory - the question of applicability of federal bankruptcy laws and procedures for troubled Tribal enterprises. 

The Mashantucket Western Pequot Tribal Nation, owner of the massive Foxwoods Resort Casino, is seeking to restructure at least $1.45 billion in debt.  With gaming revenues in steep decline due to a lack of players, Foxwoods is at risk of becoming the biggest Tribal casino company to default on its debt. 

The looming cash crunch highlights the different economic and legal landscape in which Tribal enterprises operate. “They can’t do the types of things other debtors can in a restructure,” says Megan Neuburger, an analyst at Fitch Ratings in New York. “Tribal casinos can’t do a debt-for-equity swap. They can’t raise cash by selling off assets on Tribal land to repay creditors."  Standard & Poor’s has cut its Mashantucket rating four steps to CCC and placed the debt on credit watch.  Creditors probably can’t take over assets or operations of casinos on Tribal land, which are sovereign nations, as they may with commercial bankruptcies, Neuburger said. That leaves them little choice other than to restructure debts and work with the Tribe.

No Tribal casino has yet tested federal bankruptcy laws.  “Bankruptcy law does not apply to Tribal situations in the same way it does to a commercial situation,” Neuburger said.  Michael Thomas, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, told members that the Tribal government would be paid first, before bankers or bondholders.  “It might be posturing, but the Tribe is indicating that it might put itself, the equity holder, ahead of the debt, ignoring corporate law,” said Lawrence Klatzkin of municipal bond broker Chapdelaine Credit Partners. “It probably won’t happen, but if it does, who’s to say other Tribes don’t say, ‘If Foxwoods doesn’t need to meet its U.S. legal obligations, maybe I don’t either.’”

 

Indian Law Resource Center Releases Annual Report

The Indian Law Resource Center has released its annual report highlighting work undertaken to defend the rights of Native American nations and other indigenous peoples in the Americas.  Attorneys and Board Members from the ILRC played a central role in the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and are working to educate and encourage Native communities to use the Declaration to strengthen their rights of self-determination, protect their human rights, and control their own land and natural resources.

Should Tribes Be Allowed To Tax Trust Lands?

(Photo courtesy of Martha Lou Perritti)

In nearly every jurisdiction throughout the United States, local governments derive a significant portion of their operating revenue from property taxes.  The money land owners pay in property taxes goes to fund basic infrastructure such as roads and schools and services such as police and fire protection.

There is however one jurisdiction within which the local government cannot collect property taxes: Tribal lands held in federal trust.

Tribal governments cannot impose property taxes on reservation land that has been taken into trust by the federal government, which is typically most if not all of the land owned by Tribal members within the bounds of a reservation.  Tribes are thus deprived of the benefit of countless millions of dollars in revenue that would normally be available to any other municipality.  With poverty and sub-standard facilities still endemic on reservations throughout America, there is a sad irony in the fact that the place where property taxes could do the most good are the only places they cannot be collected and put back into the community.

The denial of taxing authority to Tribes also has another negative impact on Native Communities, this time in the context of the national consciousness.  In order to make up for unavailable property tax revenue, many Tribes utilize alternative income sources such as casino gaming and discounted tobacco products to finance basic services within their reservations.  Since in most states these offerings are only available within the sovereign territory of a Tribe, many Americans hold an ill-informed view that Native Americans enjoy "special privileges", and that other benefits and services to Tribes should therefore be curtailed.  The lack of understanding of why these alternative revenue sources are necessary could perhaps be overcome by touring the decrepit infrastructure with which many Tribal Communities continue to be saddled, but such ventures by non-Natives are far from routine.

There's no insurmountable obstacle to allowing Tribes to tax land within their jurisdictions.  The federal government could enter into taxing agreements with Tribes that would allow for collection of some form of property tax, which Tribes could help structure so as to increase revenue without placing an undue financial burden on Tribal members.  Numerous models for such agreements already exist, in the form of retail sales tax compacts between state and Tribal governments for business activities occurring on reservations.

Sea Otter Hunt Raises Culture And Controversy For Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council

In a move that puts traditional Native rights at odds with animal rights advocates, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribe of Vancouver Island is planning to reinstate sea otter hunts, after reaching a tentative agreement with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The deal will allow the members of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council to hunt roughly one per cent of the sea otter population in their territory on the central section of the west coast of Vancouver Island every year. Based on current figures, the take would amount to approximately 20 otters per annum.

Cliff Atleo, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, stated: "For us, it's not about the numbers. It's about reconnecting with the pelts worn by our chiefs, the heads of our governments," Council Member Keith Atleo said expects opposition to the hunt, especially since sea otters are known for their cute looks, but said the hunt is necessary to stop the sea otters from decimating sea urchin and shellfish stocks, which are a valuable source of food for First Nations communities and commercial fishermen. "We have a lot of cute children in our community that depend on the seafood, and we'd rather they have a good future. Sea otters have affected the balance in our food, traditionally and culturally," he said.

Sea otters were hunted out of existence in British Columbia during the lucrative fur trade between colonialists and West Coast natives in the late 1700s and 1800s. In the 1960s and 1970s, animals from the surviving population in Alaska were reintroduced to the B.C. coast. The otter population is now estimated at 3,500 and the species is now listed as "at risk," rather than endangered. The Nuu-chah-nulth otter hunt agreement still is awaiting final approval from First Nations leaders and the Canadian government, and the hunt is not yet scheduled.
 

Prison Sweat Lodges Promote Native Spirituality

Venturing Crew 42 collect saplings for prison sweat lodge

(photo and text courtesy of Everett Herald)

Inmates in Washington state's prisons can attend Catholic Mass, take Protestant communion or celebrate Muslim Eid, but Native Americans often struggle to find ways to practice their beliefs while incarcerated. For Native religions based in nature, bars and razor wire can be insurmountable hurdles.

A group of young adults through the Boy Scout's Venturing program set out early this month to change that. With direction from a Native American chaplain for the state prisons, the group hiked up a logging road near Gold Bar to collect slender alder saplings, said Ray Sayah, leader of the Venturing crew. The saplings will be used to build sweat lodges in prisons throughout Washington state. The group collected 160 saplings, being careful to avoid killing any other plant in respect for Tribal culture. The sweat lodges will be built on prison grounds, and they will be just like those found on Tribal reservations in north Snohomish County and elsewhere.

"This is contributing to the construction of more than 20 sweat lodges," Sayah said. "We're trying to get one for each prison facility where they're permitted."
 

Major Tribal Law Conference In Seattle May 8th

On Friday, May 8, 2009, the Washington State Bar Association’s Indian Law Section will hold its 21st Annual Conference and continuing legal education seminar in Seattle. Co-hosted by the law firm of Foster Pepper PLLC, the day-long program will cover cutting-edge legal issues affecting Native American communities, including:

  • Federal Tribal trust funds mismanagement
  • Revisiting the issue of Native American civil rights and Tribal sovereignty
  • Examining the Duwamish Tribe and other federal recognition cases
  • Native American policy under the Obama administration
  • Juvenile justice in Native communities
  • Tax planning for Tribal construction and economic development projects

The panel of presenters features numerous acclaimed experts on Tribal issues, including:

  • Diana Bob, National Congress of American Indians, Washington D.C.
  • Melody McCoy, Native American Rights Fund, Boulder, Colorado
  • Rob Roy Smith, lead counsel in the ground-breaking Snoqualmie Tribal banishment case
  • Tom Schlosser, advocate and educator on Tribal legal affairs
  • Jeff Nave, national Tribal finance and tax credit expert

The program also includes a traditional dance performance and cultural competency presentation by “One Crazy Raven” Gene Tagaban. You can follow the program during the day via this site's Twitter updates @nativelegal.
 

9th Circuit Holds Tribes Subject To Fair Labor Standards Act - Including Federal Inspections

In its just-released opinion in Solis v.Matheson, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) applies to Tribal businesses, whether located on-Reservation or not, and that federal enforcement agencies can enter upon Tribal lands and search records to determine compliance.

The Solis case involves a claim for payment of overtime wages by an employee of a Native-owned retail operation. The Puyallup Tribe in Washington state has a store known as Baby Zack’s Smoke Shop located on trust land within its Reservation. Baby Zack’s sells tobacco products and sundries to both Tribal members and non-Natives, and regularly employs both Native and non-Native workers. An employee filed a claim for unpaid overtime wages against the owner of Baby Zack’s, and the Federal District Court entered judgment concluding that the FLSA applied to the shop, and that the failure to pay overtime wages violated the FLSA. The judgment enjoined the owners of Baby Zack's from violating the FLSA and ordered payment of $31,339.27 in overtime wages.

On appeal, the 9th Circuit not only affirmed the applicability of the FLSA to on-Reservation Tribal businesses, but went farther by specifically authorizing federal searches on Tribal lands as part of enforcement practices.


We conclude that the overtime requirements of the FLSA apply to the retail business at issue in this case. Because the FLSA applies to the retail business, we conclude that the Secretary had the authority to enter the Indian reservation to audit the books of the business, as she would regularly do with respect to any private business.

Accordingly, because the FLSA overtime provisions apply to the (shop), we conclude that the Secretary was authorized to make entry on to the reservation in order to locate records via her regular procedure in her effort to enforce the statute in question.

Unless the decision of the 9th Circuit is overturned by the US Supreme Court, Tribes and Native Corporations must now comply with the requirements of the FLSA, and assume they are subject to intrusive inspections by federal regulators. It therefore behooves Native entities to craft and adopt employment and labor policies that will serve their business interests while avoiding conflict with federal standards.
 

Should Federal Courts Intervene In Tribal Banishments?

Image

Banished Snoqualmie Tribe Members at Seattle's Federal Courthouse (Seattle Times)

"It's just like death" 

"We were treated like criminals" 

“It’s ripping a big family apart”


These comments from Linda Sweet-Baxter, Carolyn Lubenau, and Anita Christansen arose from a recent court hearing on the banishment orders issued by the Snoqualmie Tribe, affecting nine (now “former”) Tribal members. Along with the substantive and cultural issues involved in the banishments, another point of interest was the venue for the hearing – the Federal Court for the Western District of Washington.

The banished members brought legal action in federal court under the Indian Civil Rights Act, alleging the leadership of the Snoqualmie Tribe denied them their right of due process, including adequate notice and an opportunity to speak on their own behalf. The challenges facing the Court went beyond the legal principles at issue, as the non-Native judge, court reporter, and lawyers struggled throughout the hearing to pronounce words in the Tribe’s Lushootseed language.

While federal courts are well-equipped to deal with issues of Constitutional, federal, and even state law, their ability to deal effectively with the political, cultural, and familial complexities of Tribal banishment cases is a significant concern. On a more fundamental level, there is a question of sovereignty involved in reviewing a Tribe’s decision regarding who is and is not one of its members. With the increasing use by Tribes of banishment as a method of criminal (and sometimes political) punishment, legal scholars and advocates must analyze and establish the appropriate boundaries between federal protection under ICRA and a Tribe’s inherent jurisdiction over its membership.
 

A Tax On The Checkerboard

Fractionation of Pine Ridge Reservation (Villageearth.org)

The exterior boundaries of Tribal reservations are usually fairly well defined, and provide a delineation for when one is leaving state land and entering “Indian Country”. However, the ownership and control of land within the bounds of the reservation is often far less clear. Through previous federal policies such as allotment and termination, much Native land was alienated from Tribal ownership. As a result, ownership maps of present-day reservations often resemble a “checkerboard”, with plots of non-Native-owned land interspersed with Tribal trust lands.

For many Tribes, reacquiring the land within reservation boundaries is both an economic and cultural imperative, and Tribal leaders seek creative legal and business methods of eliminating the checkerboard. The Tulalip Tribes in Washington are presently considering a unique economic tool in this regard: imposing a tax on sales of land by Tribal members to non-Natives. The Tulalip Grassroots Committee, an organization of Tribal members, has proposed a 17 percent tax on the land value on real estate transactions to discourage Tribal members from selling land to non-Native buyers. "We believe the reservation is sacred and we wanted to make sure that not as much land goes out of trust status," states Tulalip Chairman Mel Sheldon.

With real estate prices plummeting nationwide in the tumult of the current economic crisis, Tribes with cash are positioned to more quickly eliminate checkerboard spaces within reservations. While a tax such as that proposed by Tulalip may help reduce alienation of Tribal lands, there is also risk of alienating the surrounding business community by raising a new barrier to transactions on reservations. Balancing the interests of internal cohesiveness and positive external relations will become increasingly important as Tribes navigate through the current nationwide economic crisis.
 

Tribes' "Special Privileges" Under Attack In Oklahoma

"It is simply unfair..."  Rep. David Dank

Assailing what he calls “special privileges that give (Native Americans) unique advantages” and declaring “It’s time for our Legislature to restore sanity to Oklahoma’s dealings with the Tribes”, Oklahoma state Representative David Dank has introduced three bills before the state Congress: 1) a constitutional amendment to give private businesses the same right to make corporate campaign contributions as Tribes; 2) a second amendment requiring compacts between Tribes and state government be ratified by the state Legislature; and 3) a bill giving private businesses located close to competing Tribal stores the same sales tax exemptions as the Native-owned businesses. Dank outlines his plan and purpose in an article in this week’s Oklahoman newspaper.

Dank’s reasoning is based on his view that:

Tribes collect no sales taxes on items sold from their grocery and convenience stores, or other Tribal businesses. They collect about half of normal tobacco taxes from Indian smoke shop sales. Tribal businesses pay no property taxes, the state receives little or nothing from Tribal auto tags, and Tribes, unlike private businesses, are free to make millions in corporate campaign contributions.

Meanwhile, the Tribes reap millions from a state-issued monopoly on casino gambling in Oklahoma because of a 15-year compact that cannot be altered.

These are tax exemptions and breaks that siphon tens of millions of dollars each year from local school districts, city and county governments and our state treasury. Non-Tribal citizens and businesses are being taxed to make up those losses. In some cases, non-Tribal businesses are being driven into bankruptcy by the unfair competition made possible by these special privileges.

Dank’s article neglects to mention some other ways in which Native American Tribes are “special”. Unlike every other municipality in the country, and despite being recognized by the US government as sovereign, Tribal governments are not allowed to levy property taxes on the Tribe’s own land. This state of affairs deprives Tribes of untold millions in revenues each year that other municipalities use for roads, police, and other civic services. For Tribes fortunate enough to be located near population centers or interstate highways, gaming revenue is but a partial substitute for the lack of taxing authority, as illustrated by the endemic poverty and substandard infrastructure on reservations.

The private sector of Oklahoma’s economy also reflects a “special” place for Native Americans. As he laments the Tribes’ “special financial privileges” that “cost state and local governments millions and damages competing private businesses”, Dank omits the fact that Native American and Alaska Native householders in Oklahoma had a median income 18.1 percent less than the median level for all households, and an overall decline in median income of 24.2 percent since the year 2000 – the biggest drop of any demographic group in the state. Meanwhile, the Caucasian demographic in Oklahoma has realized a 42.8 percent increase in household income level since the year 2005.

Special indeed.

Wondering If You're An "Indian"? Ask The Ninth Circuit

                                                                            

 (Billy Mills; Sitting Bear

Articles on this site have previously commented on the troubling fact that race continues to be an actively-considered element in both substantive and jurisdictional issues of law affecting Native Americans. The recent 9th Circuit case of United States v. Cruz demonstrates that the phenomenon of “race laws” continues to haunt the national landscape.

The Cruz case involves the analysis of whether a criminal defendant could be tried by a federal court under the laws of the United States. The federal government contended that Mr. Cruz is an “Indian” and committed an assault on Tribal land, thereby subjecting him to federal jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 113(a)(6). Mr. Cruz appealed, alleging that he is not an “Indian” and therefore not subject to federal jurisdiction under the statute. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeal offered the following preface to its analysis:

“At first glance, there appears to be something odd about a court of law in a diverse nation such as ours deciding whether a specific individual is or is not “an Indian.” Yet, given the long and complex relationship between the government of the United States and the sovereign tribal nations within its borders, the criminal jurisdiction of the federal government often turns on precisely this question — whether a particular individual “counts” as an Indian — and it is this question that we address once again today.”

The Court then plunged into an analysis of Mr. Cruz’s racial heritage, determining that

“His father is Hispanic and his mother is 29/64 Blackfeet Indian and 32/64 Blood Indian. The Blackfeet are a federally recognized tribe based in northern Montana; the Blood Indians are a Canadian tribe. Given his parents’ heritage, Cruz is 29/128 Blackfeet Indian and 32/128 Blood Indian.”

The Court ultimately found that the evidence in the case “does not demonstrate that Cruz is an Indian”, and remanded the matter back to the lower court with directions to acquit Mr. Cruz of the federal charges.

The Cruz case is merely the latest in a long series of cases where judges have attempted to determine who is and is not Native American through subjective racial analysis. Leaving aside the glaring issue of why race is a jurisdictional factor in the first place, courts have also failed to create any uniform standard for this tortured arithmetic. In Sully v. United States, 195 F. 113 (8th Cir.1912). 1/8 “Indian” blood was held sufficient to be Indian; in Vezina v. United States, 245 F. 411 (8th Cir.1917), women 1/4 to 3/8 Chippewa were held to be Indian; in Makah Indian Tribe v. Clallam County, 73 Wash.2d 677, 440 P.2d 442 (1968), 1/4 Makah blood sufficient to satisfy the “Indian blood requirement”, in Goforth v. State, 644 P.2d 114, 116 (Okla.Crim.App.1982), the requirement of Indian blood was satisfied by testimony that a person was slightly less than one-quarter Cherokee; and in St. Cloud v. United States, 702 F.Supp. 1456, 1460 (D.S.D.1988), 15/32 of Yankton Sioux blood was held sufficient to establish one as an “Indian”.

Conducting mathematical calculations on a human being’s racial ancestry for the purpose of deciding which laws apply to that person harkens back to the darkest days of American jurisprudence. For those who thought America had moved beyond Plessy v. Ferguson, when the Supreme Court decided that a person who was “7/8ths White” could be consigned to both a separate train car and a separate legal standard, it is clear that much work still remains to be done. It has become typical for courts to “punt” the obvious problems with race laws involving Native Americans by saying “it’s Congress’ responsibility, not the courts.” This justification for abdicating judicial responsibility is not only legally fallacious, it directly contradicts the clear legal precedent of cases such as Brown v. Board of Education where legal policies based on race were declared inherently unconstitutional. Courts clearly have the legal authority to put an end to race-based laws, all they need is the courage.

A far better way for Tribal/federal jurisdiction questions to be analyzed is based on treaty status, with Tribal members being subject to either Tribal or federal jurisdiction based on agreements between their Tribe and the US government.  These are the same principles used when citizens of Canada, Mexico, or other sovereigns  are charged with crimes within the United States, and the procedures for determining jurisdiction are well established. Such a policy would properly acknowledge the sovereign status of Tribes, and eliminate the embarrassing and intellectually-unsupportable notion that a person’s race should determine their legal status in America.
 

Why Are Tribal Courts Restricted To One-Year Criminal Sentences?

(Tribal Courthouse - Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan)

In 1968, Congress passed legislation codified as 25 U.S.C. §§ 1301-03, better known as the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA). Modeled after various portions of the amendments to the US Constitution that comprise the Bill of Rights, ICRA mandates protections for Tribal members such as freedom of speech, religion, press, and assembly. Subparagraph 7 of Section 1302 of ICRA provides that Tribal Courts shall not require excessive bail, impose excessive fines, impose cruel or unusual punishment, “and in no event impose for conviction of any one offense any penalty or punishment greater than imprisonment for a term of one year and a fine of $5,000, or both.”


Murder, rape, armed robbery – a Tribal Court can only impose a maximum one-year jail sentence for these or any other crimes committed on a reservation. If the Tribe views such punishment as inadequate for what in most jurisdictions would be capital crimes, its only option is to surrender jurisdiction to a state or federal court and allow the matter to be adjudicated in those systems.


Why?


In the 21st Century, what legal, intellectual, or philosophical justification exists for restricting the power of Tribal Courts to administer reasonable justice in their sovereign territory? Outside the realm of Tribal lands, courts in even the poorest and least-educated counties in America have the full sentencing panoply (including life sentences and capital punishment) available to deal with criminal acts occurring within their jurisdictions. Yet Tribes with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and sophisticated judicial systems are only permitted to issue sentences equivalent to that which non-Native courts impose on habitual traffic offenders.

The ability to make and enforce laws to protect the security and possessions of the members of a nation is a basic and fundamental element of sovereignty. When a capital crime is committed on Tribal lands, the Tribe suffers twice – first from the act itself, and then from the humiliation of having to hand over jurisdiction to a foreign court as the only means to pursue reasonable justice. At what point do federal/Tribal relations move beyond the Oliphant standard, wherein Tribes are given authority only to the point “consistent with the safety of the white population with which they may have come in contact”? In the era when the United States has finally proven itself “ready” to elect a person of color to the highest office in the land, is it also now ready to provide Tribal Courts the same basic legal authority as any other tribunal in the land?
 

Can Spirituality (And The Law) Save The Environment?

(photo: Genesis Realty)

The San Francisco Peaks in Northern Arizona are considered sacred lands by more than a dozen Tribes in the region. Stunningly picturesque, the Peaks are also home to the Arizona Snowbowl – a popular ski resort that attracts thousands of people to its slopes each year. Tourism in sacred Tribal lands is often a source of socio-political tension, but when the proprietors of the Snowbowl sought a special permit from the US Forest Service to begin spraying the Peaks with artificial snow made from treated sewage water, the Navajo Nation and other local Tribes were moved to action.

Instead of utilizing typical principles of environmental law, the Tribes took a different approach. They petitioned for an injunction against the Snowbowl under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb, a federal law enacted in 1993 to prevent government actions that would substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion. The RFRA prohibits the federal government from placing a “substantial burden” on a person’s exercise of religion unless the government’s action furthers a “compelling government interest” or “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.” It also reinforces the “strict scrutiny” test for any governmental action that would tend to impinge on religious freedom – this is the most stringent and demanding standard for governmental actions, requiring that any the action be closely tied to a compelling government interest in order to be legal.

The Tribes argued that spraying “snow” made of treated sewage effluent on the sacred Peaks was both an unreasonable interference with their religious practices and not sufficiently related to a compelling government interest. Since the Snowbowl is located on land controlled by the US Forest Service, the issuance of a permit for the artificial snow is a governmental action subject to scrutiny under the RFRA. The Tribes succeeded in convincing a 9th Circuit panel that the spraying was a violation of the RFRA, but the decision was reversed by the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Tribes then petitioned the US Supreme Court and are currently awaiting review.

As global climate change increasingly calls into question modern pollution-producing lifestyles, it is interesting to ponder ancient Native philosophies regarding the environment. In Pre-Columbian times, Native American Tribes created communities that lived in remarkable harmony with nature. The Anasazi cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly provide a striking example of people building and operating a society based on knowledge of and respect for their natural surroundings. Those familiar with Native American culture know that this approach was based on something far deeper than mere geographic expediency; Native people viewed the earth as sacred, and embraced its preservation as a spiritual imperative.

Using legal tools like the RFRA, contemporary Native communities can work to heighten awareness and protection of lands that have ritual and religious significance – and at the same time make positive contributions to the environment for the benefit of all people.

Why Are Tribal Courts The Last Race-Based Jurisdiction In The United States?

If an American enters the sovereign territory of Canada or Mexico and commits murder, he or she can expect to face the full weight of that nation's laws and be punished through that nation's court system.  But if a non-Native American enters the sovereign territory of a Tribe and murders a Tribal member, what punishment can that person expect to receive from the Tribe's Court and legal system?

 

None whatsoever.

 

Due to a unique set of federal legal decisions and policies, Tribal Courts have no jurisdiction to impose criminal penalties against "non-Indians", even when the crimes are committed on Tribal land or against Tribal members.  Crimes committed by "non-Indians" on Tribal land are subject to state and/or federal jurisdiction and the perpetrators face punishment under state and/or federal law, but the affected Tribe has no legal standing to pursue justice for wrongs committed against its own people.

In no other area of American jurisprudence is race - in this case "Indian" or "non-Indian" - a factor in determining whether a court has jurisdiction over a criminal defendant.  Decades ago the Civil Rights Movement helped sweep away race-based segregation and "Jim Crow" laws, but seemingly had no impact on the use of race as a jurisdictional consideration in the realm of Tribal Courts.  Indeed, the seminal Supreme Court opinion that confirmed the restrictions on Tribal Court jurisdiction was issued in 1978, more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act liberated the rest of America's population from racial discrimination in its governmental institutions.  In addition to the basic question of why race is a factor in Tribal justice, numerous other issues arise in this paradigm: Who exactly is a "non-Indian"?  Is a person with a drop of Native blood in the family lineage considered an "Indian" under this system?  What "race authority" should have the final word on determining such questions?

The US Supreme Court's opinion in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe provides startling insight into the policies and mind-set that resulted in the limited jurisdiction of Tribal Courts.  It is striking that nearly all of the legal authority on which the court relied was from the 19th Century, when the attitudes of the American government toward Native Americans were anything but enlightened.  Citing In re Mayfield, 141 U.S. 107, 115 -116 (1891), the Oliphant Court noted that the policy of Congress had been to allow the inhabitants of Indian country "such power of self-government as was thought to be consistent with the safety of the white population with which they may have come in contact, and to encourage them as far as possible in raising themselves to our standard of civilization."  The Supreme Court's decision in 1978 also cited the view Congress took toward the state of Tribal Courts in 1834: "With the exception of two or three tribes, who have within a few years past attempted to establish some few laws and regulations among themselves, the Indian tribes are without laws, and the chiefs without much authority to exercise any restraint." H. R. Rep. No. 474, 23d Cong., 1st Sess., 91 (1834).   The idea that such antiquated and ill-informed perspectives could still be the basis for American legal policy in the 21st Century is difficult to fathom, and is a sad reflection of the persistent racial discrimination that lurks even in the land that produced the Bill of Rights.

What is to be done to correct this glaring discrepancy?  Reading between the lines in the Oliphant decision, it seems that the Supreme Court of the time felt that the restrictions on Tribal Court jurisdiction were no longer appropriate, but that under the doctrine of separation of powers an act of Congress was required to rectify the situation.  Thirty years later, Congress has obviously failed to take the hint.  In all likelihood, removing race from jurisdictional considerations for Tribal Courts will require concerted pressure and lobbying of Congress by Tribes all across the country, acting in a coordinated and united front to claim this basic element of sovereignty.

Is The First Amendment A Friend To First Nations?

The current cinema blockbuster “Twilight” is, on the surface, a teenage vampire movie set in the somewhat unusual location of Forks, Washington. While the film doles out helpings of the standard teen angst, parental alienation, and enigmatic vampires typical for this genre, it also contains an interesting subplot – the vampires will not tread upon the traditional lands of the Quileute Tribe. This is due to the (cinematic) fact that Quileute members are descended from wolves, and evidently retain the power to shape-shift into supernatural wolf-hybrids that are deadly to vampires. An uneasy truce prevails between the two camps, with the Tribal members keeping constant watch on the local “undead” and remaining ever-ready to defend the Tribe’s territory against vampire incursions. Given the film’s success at the box office, a sequel appears inevitable, with a Battle Royale between the Forks Vampires and the Quileute Wolves as its likely centerpiece.

The Quileutes are a real-life Chimakuan Tribe living along the Quileute River on the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington state. The Tribal members depicted in the film are striking in every sense – stoic, wise, humorous, and physically appealing. As an added bonus, they possess the aforementioned supernatural powers, which clearly set them apart from the rest of the local community. Although it would appear that the filmmakers sought to cast the Tribal members in a positive light – and even provide them with physical and moral advantages over the rest of the population – they also unquestionably depict the Native American characters in the film as something other than purely human. While certainly legal under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, do such mass-media portrayals of Native peoples as “different” serve to perpetuate negative generalizations - and thereby damage the culture and dignity of an entire people?

While current films may capture the most immediate attention, popular attitudes toward even the oldest interactions between Native peoples and European immigrants still reflect stereotypes engendered through various forms of media. Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts features a re-creation of an English village from the 1600s and a Native American homesite, and Native American guides offer historical insights into the earliest connections between the two peoples. Yet a number of the thousands of people who visit daily bring with them startling misconceptions about the Native people, which still persist and are promulgated through free speech. Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said one of the first things she learned when she started working at Plimoth in Massachusetts 30 years ago was: "People will say things that will hurt you." She’s overheard parents reprimand their children by saying, "If you don't behave I am going to leave you with this Indian squaw and she will cook you for dinner." Native docents at Plimoth have endured inquiries from guests such as "Where do you get your alcohol?" and "I thought we killed all of you." Officials who run the site work to educate visitors by putting up signs asking them to avoid stereotypes, and showing a short film at the beginning of the tour explaining what really happened when the Pilgrims first arrived on the continent.

To what extent have the essentially unbridled freedoms of the First Amendment served the interests of Native peoples? Freedom itself, in the absence of the power to effectively exercise it, is often of little value for those to whom it is ostensibly granted. The percentage of traditional media outlets owned or controlled by Native Americans is small to an extreme, leaving Tribal members with a correspondingly small amount of power to shape the portrayals of their people, history, and culture through these outlets. The negative and often fraudulent portrayals of Tribal members in film, television, books produced by the mainstream media cast a pall over Native heritage throughout the 20th Century. As we near the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, Native peoples will need to be increasingly proactive in their use of new-media forms such as YouTube, blogs, and mobile communications technology in order to create an accurate and forward-thinking consciousness regarding Tribal issues. These forms of communication are acting to decentralize the transfer of information, bringing a global audience within the reach of anyone possessing an Internet connection and the determination to put forth a positive message. Capitalizing on these technologies can and should bring the freedoms of the First Amendment to bear for the benefit of all Native Americans.