Negotiation Vs. Litigation: A Look At The Reservation Borders Decision

Feb 14, 2014

The governments of Riverton, Fremont County, the state, and of the two tribes who share the Wind River Indian Reservation are arguing, again, over the reservation’s borders.

An Environmental Protection Agency decision last December drew the borders to include Riverton as tribal land, something Wyoming contests. The tribes saw the move as righting a historical wrong, but Riverton and the state say the EPA didn’t have the jurisdiction to make that call. But perhaps one question not being asked is: why are we still fighting over reservation borders in 2014? Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov takes a look.

IRINA ZHOROV: First a little background: In 1905 Congress opened up a piece of the Wind River Indian Reservation to white settlement. Today, the state and tribes are disputing whether the Act of 1905 just allowed white settlers to live there, or if the land was actually taken away from the Indians. That’s still unresolved. But some people think that shouldn’t stop attempts to resolve other, long-standing issues. Enter…

JOHN VINCENT: John Vincent…I’m a lawyer here in Riverton, Wyoming.

ZHOROV: He was also mayor of Riverton from 2003 to2011.

VINCENT: Early on, from the outset of my time as mayor, I thought it was exceedingly important that the city of Riverton and our residents tried to find a way to live in harmony with our brothers and sisters on the reservation.    

ZHOROV: In 2008, Vincent worked with leaders from both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes to draft an agreement that said tribes and the city would mediate rather than litigate on different issues.

VINCENT: In other words, to meet and confer and act with good will towards each other to resolve differences.

ZHOROV: The idea was to write up memorandums of understanding, or MOUs, after that initial agreement that would outline how exactly the tribes and the city would negotiate in different situations, for example law enforcement and taxes. He says they would have addressed the very things that are causing concerns – and strong words - today regarding the EPA ruling.

But Vincent says a small, very vocal group of people in Riverton convinced others that the agreements were not a good idea.

VINCENT: It reached such a point that there were physical attacks made on tribal councilmen who came to our city meetings by white people who attended.

ZHOROV: Vincent says he was jumped, too.

VINCENT: What then happened was the tribes wrote a letter that withdrew these agreements on the night there was supposed to be a vote prior to the time there was a vote because they were afraid of what would happen to me.

ZHOROV: And that was it. The MOUs never happened.

He says when he started writing the agreements in 2008, the state already had a bad track record of working with the tribes. There was, for example, a drawn out, expensive law suit over water rights in the Big Horn water system that went to the Supreme Court. There was a lawsuit over voting in Fremont County. There was a lawsuit over gaming. Vincent says not only did the suits strain relations between the state and tribes, but the state lost in all those cases. By not engaging with the tribes, he says, the state ended up in a worse position than they could have.

VINCENT: Our refusal, our stubbornness, our I don’t know what you’d call it, arrogance, I guess, led to that result. 

ZHOROV: Other states and tribes have dealt with similar issues. Kathy Ling is a city Commissioner in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Around the time Vincent was trying to write up his agreements, Mt. Pleasant and the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe were locking horns on jurisdictional issues almost identical to those sparked by the EPA decision. But tribal and non-tribal governments…negotiated.

KATHY LING: I think the key was both felt they could either win or lose if it went to court and that we were better off if we controlled our own fate.

ZHOROV: The negotiations led to mutually agreeable arrangements about jurisdiction for law enforcement, about tax issues, and a host of other things. Ling says the agreements have made things more workable for everyone involved and improved the relationship between governments long-term. She says the negotiating process was controversial in Pt. Pleasant, too, but that faded.

LING: Part of that is because the Governor’s office at the state level, at the state level, the Governor at the time, Jennifer Granholm, really wanted a negotiated settlement.   

ZHOROV: But for Wyoming Governor Matt Mead negotiating hasn’t been a priority. The various governmental entities have not met since EPA issued its decision. Mead says it was up to the EPA to have initiated some sort of negotiation before making its decision.

MATT MEAD: But in fairness, had they come to me and said, ‘Hey, we want to negotiate this,’ my response would be I don’t believe that you as a regulatory agency have the authority to redefine the state boundaries, number one, number two, in doing that you’ll go against history, you’ll go against what I believe court precedent is and you’ll create issues.

ZHOROV: Mead says he doesn’t have any problems with the tribes, and indeed the state does work with the tribes on some issues. Mead says it’s the EPA that makes him mad, and blames them for the confusing process.

But the tribes still feel slighted by the local and state government’s swift negative reactions to the EPA’s decision. Here’s Eastern Shoshone Business Council Chairman Darwin St. Clair, Jr.

DARWIN ST. CLAIR JR.: We want things to go good for everybody, and not just for us, but for everyone, and for people to be understanding of what’s going on.

ZHOROV: He says there’s a history lesson here. To him, the tribes haven’t exactly gotten a fair deal from white governments in the past and in 2014 tribes have more power and information to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

ST. CLAIR JR.: They always say history repeats itself. History only repeats itself if you make the same decision.

ZHOROV: That could be a good lesson for the state, too. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.

HOST: The EPA announced this week that it’s putting its decision on hold on the disputed sections of land. Today Wyoming filed an appeal to EPA’s decision in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.