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Tribe has 'grave concerns' about fed legislation on reservation border

Apr 9, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

The Northern Arapaho Tribe continues to "slam" drafted federal legislation that would clarify the boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Tribal leaders sent a letter Friday to Wyoming's congressional delegation -- U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, all R-Wyo. -- condemning the draft bill, which would "terminate" a portion of the reservation, according to the Northern Arapaho Business Council.

"Obviously, we have grave concerns about the bill and oppose it," the NABC wrote.

The letter was in response to a request for comments on the legislation. The congressional delegation had asked for feedback by Friday -- a short deadline for NABC representatives.

"We received a copy of the draft bill a few days ago," they wrote in their Friday letter. "It is clear to us that you are moving forward as quickly as possible at the request of Gov. Matt Mead and regardless of any input from the tribe.

"Your failure to engage in meaningful consultation on a matter of such vital importance to the future of the tribe is disheartening."

The tribal leaders referenced earlier meetings with Lummis and Enzi in the letter, however. In addition, Enzi met with residents, including tribal representatives, this weekend to discuss the draft bill while he was in town for his annual Inventors Conference.

"He continues to look for constructive input before introducing the bill," Enzi's press secretary Daniel Patrick Head said Monday in an e-mail to The Ranger.

In an e-mail Thursday, Head said Enzi and the Wyoming delegation is working on the legislation with "all the stakeholders," including tribal members, state government, Fremont County and the City of Riverton.

"But it hasn't been introduced or finalized yet because we are awaiting comments on the circulated draft," he said.

EPA

The tribal leaders in their Friday letter said they suspect that people who support the bill have not read the decision from the Environmental Protection Agency granting treatment in a similar manner as a state status to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes as part of the federal Clean Air Act.

As part of that ruling, the EPA defined the boundary of the WRIR, specifically stating that a 1905 Act of Congress, which opened up lands like the city of Riverton to homesteading, did not diminish the reservation.

The Wyoming delegation's draft legislation states that the 1905 Act did diminish the WRIR.

"This bill is a direct assault on our sovereignty and what little remains of our homeland," the NABC letter states. "Those who promote it will find themselves on the wrong side of history. For these reasons, we ask you to reconsider your support for the bill."

Head said the legislation is necessary.

"Otherwise we let the EPA change boundaries and rewrite laws, the scope of which is far greater than the agency's jurisdiction," he said last week. "Sen. Enzi doesn't want to change the current boundaries. He wants to make sure they stay as they have been for decades."

The draft legislation stipulates that any land added to the WRIR by Congress after 1905 still will be considered part of the reservation.

"The boundaries were set by Congress a long time ago, and they should be set by the elected representatives of the people," Head said. "Not the courts and certainly not the EPA."

The bill would not affect the tribes' TAS status, which allows them to monitor air quality on the reservation.

"If this is really about the ability of the tribes to monitor air quality, this bill would keep that in place," Head said. "What Senator Enzi doesn't want is the EPA deciding what the boundaries of the reservation are. What he seeks to do with legislation is maintain borders the way they are now."

The NABC in its letter said Wyoming in other situations has "promoted the TAS process as an appropriate forum to resolve the competing views of the WRIR boundary." Lawyers for the NABC cited Northern Arapaho Tribe v. Harnsberger, a case in which the tribe sued various state and county officials, seeking an injunction against the state's imposition of certain vehicle and excise taxes in areas that the tribe said were within Indian country, according to court documents.

Tribal lawyers said the state argued that the case should be dismissed because another forum was available to solve the question of taxation on the reservation -- namely, the TAS process.

"Recent outrage about the EPA decision is little more than political theater," the tribe stated in its Friday letter.

The representatives also mentioned several instances in which federal officials refer to the 1905 Act area as "an enduring part" of the WRIR. For example, they said, the U.S. Department of the Interior continued to approve allotments to American Indians in the opened area after 1905. Federal officials reportedly approved the railroad right of way through the Wind River Canyon and Hudson -- both in the 1905 Act area -- under Indian country statute, and they approved official surveys of the area using the Wind River meridian, not a principal meridian normally used for public lands.

"The best way to understand the number and quality of these examples is to review the EPA decision document," tribal leaders said in their letter.

Online documents

The EPA decision document is available here.

The agency's legal analysis of the WRIR boundary can be found here.

A statement outlining the tribes' ability to monitor air quality is here.

The EPA submitted a map depicting the boundary of the WRIR is here.

Additional information on the subject is here.