BIA court arraigning Arapaho defendants

Oct 21, 2016 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

Despite the protests of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs's new court in Fort Washakie has begun arraigning all defendants in the BIA office, including enrolled Arapaho.

Judge John St. Clair met Wednesday with Thelma Stiffarm, the new magistrate for the BIA court, to begin coordinating how cases will be handled after the two-court system was established this week.

At the time, it was determined the both judges would share the courthouse for the time being, and all Arapaho would continue to be brought before St. Clair in the tribal court that has operated since 1987.

Stiffarm would take control of all Shoshone defendants and American Indians not enrolled in either tribe.

Just a day later, that tentative agreement already had eroded after an order from the local BIA agency ordered police to have all defendants to make their initial appearances in front of Stiffarm.

In a Tuesday letter to St. Clair, local BIA superintendent Norma Gourneau acknowledged the Arapaho right to operate a tribal court and said that, because the courts would have "concurrent jurisdiction" in some cases, the BIA court should "adopt a local rule creating a procedure for transfer of cases involving the (BIA) court adopt a local rule creating a procedure for transfer of cases involving the Arapaho Tribe or Arapaho tribal members to your court."

That initial compromise didn't please the Shoshone Business Council, which asked the BIA in a Wednesday resolution to expel St. Clair and his staff from the courthouse.

Despite the 1938 Supreme Court ruling compensating the Shoshone for their loss of land, current members of the SBC have amped up rhetoric in recent months purporting its tribe has superior rights to the Northern Arapaho.

In its resolution, the SBC based its demand to remove St. Clair on a rationale that "the Eastern Shoshone Tribe has unique and exclusive standing as the only tribe with a treaty pertaining to the Wind River Reservation" and has "the sovereign right ... over law and order on the reservation."

Although the Shoshone General Council has not formally rescinded the Shoshone and Arapaho Tribal Law and Order Code -- which established the tribal court as the law of the land -- the SBC withdrew recognition of the tribal court and implored the BIA to depose St. Clair's authority amid the loss of funding and a political dispute between the tribe and judge.

St. Clair had issued a strict order against the SBC and is now hearing a contempt of court case against the tribe, which could include imprisonment for council-members and sanctions of up $21,000.

Even local BIA superintendent Norma Gourneau seemed to express skepticism over whether SBC has such authority to withdraw recognition, saying the SBC resolution only "purportedly strips" St. Clair of the right to hear cases involving the Shoshone.

Federal code generally prevents the BIA from setting up its own court where an operating tribal court exists.

However, Larry Roberts, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, waived certain regulations and amended others to allow a separate court to begin operating for Shoshone members this month.

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