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Legal activist: Border dispute a matter of group vs. individual sovereignty in nation

Jun 15, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Organizers of an event Friday in Riverton wanted to educate local residents on issues of jurisdiction and tribal sovereignty, and start a discussion.

The reaction of some at the forum, however, showed there is an element in Fremont County deeply suspicious of the federal government and ready to believe it is out to take away their rights.

The Citizens Equal Rights Alli-ance organized the event sparked by the December EPA de-cision raising jurisdictional questions by concluding during a review of air quality monitoring that Riverton is part of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

"We're here to listen and to learn," Fremont County Commis-sion chairman Doug Thompson said in a welcoming statement. "Federal Indian law is complex and contradictory."

No local government helped stage the event, and none endorsed CERA's views ahead of time.

Speakers gave their positions on the history and law surrounding tribal sovereignty and told stories of their work fighting what they saw as the federal government using tribes to overreach its powers.

Rich Heidel, village president of Hobart, Wis., recounted how his town clashed with an American Indian tribe to stay in existence and over development projects.

Mille Lacs, Minn., resident Clare Fritz said local and state officials defeated a federal government effort to re-establish a reservation in the area where he lived.

Most of the 30 people in attendance did not offer their opinions, but the group included local elected officials, candidates for office, tribal leaders and law enforcement officials.

CERA did not propose any particular action, but the group's attorney, Lana Marcussen, spent most of the five-hour meeting providing her interpretation of the history of the law regarding American Indians in the United States and re-counting court battles with which she has been involved to educate attendees on sovereignty issues.

Most of the lawsuits Marcussen said she took part in targeted the federal government, and she claimed a legal argument couched in her reading has been successful in defeating tribes and the federal government in court.

Listeners said they found her arguments convoluted at times. She focused generally on the individual's sovereignty being superior to the sovereignty of American Indian tribes.

During her monologue, Marcussen went on several tangents leading to anti-federal government jibes, which received approving murmurs from some in the crowd.

"I don't think they give a rat's ass as to what happens to most Native Americans any more than they care what happens to the rest of us," she said referring to the federal government.

One woman, Viola Nave, of Fort Washakie who identified as Navajo, questioned Marcussen's argument.

"We need to make sure we have the facts here and not this kind of like federal fear mongering, because you're going from one subject to another subject...you're just throwing everything out there," Nave said.

After the talk, however, CERA board member Naomi Brummand, of Nebraska, said people more familiar with land status litigation and the U.S. Constitution would understand Marcussen's talk better.

Despite fighting tribal actions in court, Marcussen said she supports tribal sovereignty, saying, "I have no trouble with tribal sovereignty. I have defended a lot of tribal rights."

The authors of the Consti-tution did not contemplate tribal governments remaining sovereign, she said, and at the end of her third hour of exposition, she questioned whether American Indians would be better without tribal government.

"Your choice is, do you really want to be a part of the American people and the American experiment... or can we allow a true separate sovereignty to form that the federal government can use and preserve all these powers I've been saying threaten all my rights." Marcussen asked.

The response from Eastern Shoshone Business Council chairman Darwin St. Clair crystallized the divergence of opinions on the two signs of the EPA decision issue. As much as Marcussen thought his tribe's sovereignty threatened her essential rights, St. Clair thought sovereignty was vital to his tribe's survival.

"I think part of (the way forward) is the tribes asserting their sovereignty. They're asserting their authority over what little they have left in order to keep what little they have," he said.