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Federal agency says Riverton still is part of 'Indian Country'

Dec 10, 2013 - From staff and wire reports

After many years of trying, the two Wind River Indian Reservation tribes finally have found a federal entity willing to say that Riverton is part of the reservation.

Ruling on a case involving monitoring of air quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that from its point of view, congressional action more than a century ago didn't change the legal status of nearly 1.5 million acres around Riverton as "Indian Country."

Both the City of Riverton and the State of Wyoming were quick to dismiss the order as an isolated ruling in a larger case involving tribal jurisdiction over Riverton, which was removed formally from the reservation by an Act of Congress in 1905. The act included payment to the tribes.

The EPA on Friday sent notice to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes that the federal agency has approved their application to have the Wind River Indian Reservation treated as a separate state for purposes of implementing the federal Clean Air Act. The tribes share the central Wyoming reservation.

The EPA agreed with the tribes that a 1905 federal law that opened reservation lands around Riverton to settlement by non-Indians didn't end the land's reservation status.

"We are extremely pleased with the EPA action," said Darrell O'Neal Sr., chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, in a prepared statement. "It affirms what the tribe has believed all along, that Riverton and the area north of the Big Wind River is a part of the reservation."

The legal status of the lands has been a point of contentious disagreement between the tribes and state and local governments over taxation issues as well as criminal jurisdiction for years. The EPA is the first entity at the federal level to tip toward the tribes on the issue. The ruling is certain to be challenged, and no immediate changes will take place.

Objection the EPA's determination was swift from the City of Riverton, which claims that the city's legal status as separate from the reservation can be changed only by federal court order.

"It is the city's position that jurisdictional issues need to be resolved in court. To date, all court rulings have agreed that the City of Riverton is not on the Wind River Reservation and is not 'Indian Country,'" the city responded in a statement issued from the office of Mayor Ron Warpness.

Indian County is a legal term used to describe lands recognized by the U.S. government as under tribal control on certain matters.

The State of Wyoming also objects to the determination.

Gov. Matt Mead wrote to the EPA in August opposing the tribe's request to legally designate the lands as Indian Country.

"The tribes' application, if granted, has implications for criminal law, civil law, water law and taxation," Mead wrote the EPA in August. "It also takes away the voices of citizens in Kinnear, Riverton and Pavillion."

Former Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg wrote to the EPA in 2009 stating that the application covered lands that Congress has removed from the reservation.

Renny MacKay, spokesman for Mead, said EPA officials met with representatives of the governor's office and the Wyoming attorney general's office Monday evening.

"It is outrageous to me that a regulatory agency has proposed changing jurisdictional boundaries established by history and the courts," Mead said in a statement Monday evening. "I have asked the attorney general to challenge this decision and defend the existing boundaries of the reservation."

The tribes for many years have sought federal recognition of historical boundaries for the reservation, which did include the area now occupied by Riverton before the congressional action ceded the land from the reservation in 1905. Riverton was incorporated as a Wyoming municipality the following year.

Tribal activists have said a federal ruling that Riverton is Indian Country would require changes in taxation, law enforcement and other issues in which the tribes would assume precedence over municipal control.