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Citizens for Equal Rights Alliance to host workshops on federal policies

Jun 12, 2014 - By Katie Roenigk and Alejandra Silva, Staff Writers

Tribal leaders say group is "anti-Indian," but representatives from the group say they oppose "federal Indian policy."

Local tribal leaders think an upcoming conference in Riverton was timed to inflame anti-Indian sentiment in the wake of a recent Environmental Protection Agency decision defining the boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

However, representatives from the Citizens for Equal Rights Alliance -- the group hosting the event -- say their goal is simply to inform people about federal policies affecting American Indians and other United States citizens.

"We're not anti-Indian," CERA board member and event coordinator Elaine Willman said Wednesday. "We do oppose federal Indian policy."

According to Willman, CERA is a decades-old organization that originally was formed to assist enrolled tribal members who felt they had no voice within their reservation's government.

The group's focused changed in 1988, however, when the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allowed for casino operations on tribal lands. Willman said the move made many other casino operators nervous.

"We were contacted by a lot of off-reservation casinos (who said) tribal governments were reaching out beyond their authority to govern non-tribal persons and properties," Willman said.

Tribal government has "absolute authority" over tribal members, she explained, but when a reservation's jurisdiction begins to affect neighboring businesses and communities, residents are unsure how to react.

"They're clueless," she said. "Everyone's flying blind. ... If it's a government decision, whether it involves an ethnicity or not, we have to inform ourselves."

CERA defines "federal Indian policy" as a "below-the-radar" conversation among U.S. officials and tribal government leaders. Each year, CERA hosts several workshops in an effort to educate people -- including local representatives -- about government decision-making when it comes to federal Indian policy.

The Riverton event this weekend will be CERA's third in 2014.

No one invited CERA to Fremont County, Willman said, and her group has not been endorsed by any government entities.

"We selected Riverton (because) that EPA decision was huge news -- even national news," Willman said. "I said, 'Those folks need us; let's go there.'"

The Equality State Policy Center says CERA is known for its opposition to tribal sovereignty. According to published reports, CERA was included in a 1994 list of "hate groups" operating in Montana. The Borderlands Research and Education group claims CERA routinely distorts facts about tribal sovereignty.

On Thursday, the ESPC said it "fears that CERA's activities in Fremont County will needlessly heighten tension in the community. Good, objective information should increase understanding and help defuse the situation."

The ESPC has compiled a report explaining the administrative and legal process that produced the boundary determination and answering other questions about its effects on people living in the disputed area. Titled "The Wind River Reservation Boundary Dispute -- Some Facts," the report uses a question-and-answer format to help explain the matter. The report is expected to be available at equalitystate.org by Thursday afternoon.

State within a state

The EPA in December granted treatment in a similar manner to a state status to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes as part of the federal Clean Air Act. As part of the decision, the EPA said the boundaries of the reservation were not diminished by a 1905 Act of Congress opening up certain lands, including the city of Riverton, to homesteading.

The State of Wyoming and others have challenged the EPA decision in federal court, and Gov. Matt Mead asked Wyoming's congressional delegation to draft a bill stating that the 1905 Act did diminish the reservation. Meanwhile, the EPA has granted a partial stay of its December decision so all parties can address jurisdictional concerns associated with the reservation boundary.

Willman thinks the EPA decision is problematic for several reasons. First, she said, the federal agency does not have the authority to create jurisdictional boundaries.

"EPA has been told (that) by the Supreme Court and other courts numerous times," Willman said. "They know that; they've had their hands slapped many times in court."

The other problem involves the creation of a state within a state. Willman explained that Congress has made amendments to allow the EPA to give tribal governments regulatory authority over air, water and other environmental resources through the TAS designation.

"Our position is that's entirely unconstitutional," Willman said. "It removes state authority."

Article IV of the U.S. Constitution says Congress may admit new states into the Union, but no new states can be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other state.

"Nobody knows this stuff," Willman said. "Not even tribal members are aware. ... That's why we come around."

Treaties with tribes

In a press release issued last week, Northern Arapaho leaders said the U.S. Constitution reserves the president's power to make treaties with tribes, and Article VI requires that existing treaties remain "the supreme law of the land."

In addition, they said CERA's position that tribal sovereignty undermines states' rights is "easily debunked" by Article I of the Constitution, which reserves to Congress the power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes."

According to a 2014 article in Indian Country Today, CERA "uses bogus legal arguments designed to rile up local resentment and to enlist new uninformed members and contributors."

Reservation tribal leaders expressed "dismay" that Riverton would host CERA -- "an advocacy group known for its efforts to destroy Native American tribal rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution."

"These CERA events present a stark contrast to the symposium last month ... about how Indian and non-Indian communities resolved their disputes about reservation boundaries at Mt. Pleasant, Mich.," Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Darrell O'Neal Sr. said in a letter to local representatives. "Our leaders need to work together to help bring our communities closer together. We should be building bridges, not encouraging ... groups like CERA."

Willman dismissed claims that CERA is anti-Indian.

"That's some of the kinder rhetoric," Willman said. "We're an easy target for name-calling."

Willman's mother and grandmother were enrolled members of the Cherokee Nation, and she said her husband grew up in Fort Bridger and Lander and is a direct descendant of Sacajawea.

"I was a consultant for the Yakima (Indian Reservation), and I had a good rapport with their leaders," she said. "My point is, if I thought for a moment this organization had any racial overtones of any kind, I wouldn't even be involved in it."

Later, she added her own opinion about the situation in Michigan involving the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe and the city of Mt. Pleasant in Isabella County.

"They weren't even allowed to negotiate the (reservation) boundary," Willman said. "The Saginaw Chippewa Tribe wouldn't even come to the mediation table unless the state agreed the old reservation was back. ... That's not exactly mediation, if you have to concede the most important thing -- jurisdiction -- before you can even mediate."

She did watch the symposium in Riverton last month, however, and she commended organizers for maintaining a respectful and polite atmosphere throughout the event.

"We would hope they would be the same in our event too," she said, inviting tribal members to attend and participate in the weekend sessions.

CERA's public workshop is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Fremont County Fairgrounds, with a closed session for elected officials and media representatives 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday at Riverton City Hall.

Willman said the Friday event will focus on local issues, while the weekend sessions will draw people in from many other states and agencies to talk about federal policies affecting American Indian jurisdiction. Topics include recent federal court cases in support of state, local and citizen rights; EPA air quality regulations and TAS status; and water issues, land status and sovereignty.

Willman reiterated that CERA's issues are with the federal government not with a particular tribal government.

"We encourage local government officials, staff and citizens to vigorously push back on the constant overreaching of federal government agencies that make decisions expanding tribal government authority and jurisdiction beyond its limited authority to self-govern only its tribal members and federal Indian trust properties," a CERA event announcement said. "Escalating on a parallel path to Indian policy, the federal executive branch is rolling out 'rogue' with (various agencies) and increasingly militarizing federal employees."