Forum describes way for tribes, city to resolve boundary dispute

May 16, 2014 By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

Michigan residents visited Central Wyoming College on Tuesday to discuss a 2005 boundary dispute in the city of Mt. Pleasant, Mich., that began after a lawsuit was presented by the neighboring Saginaw Chippewa Tribe.

The symposium was organized by the Northern Arapaho Tribe to help resolve tensions over the recent boundary issues between the Wind River Indian Reservation and the city of Riverton.

The Environmental Protection Agency approved in December a treatment as a state application, as part of the Clean Air Act, from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes.

The ruling stated the reservation was not diminished by the 1905 Act of Congress that opened Riverton, among other areas, to homesteading. The tribes and the State of Wyoming have recently requested a stay in the decision to resolve jurisdictional issues raised by the ruling.

Michigan case

The Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of the Isabella Indian Reservation in Michigan had engaged in a lawsuit with the state that challenged recognition of the reservation, which was established by the treaties of 1855 and 1864 and comprised five full and two half townships in the county.

The city and county requested to get involved in the dispute in 2007. The suit was filed in federal court, but in 2010, a set of memorandums of understanding established a settlement outside of the court system after years of litigation and discussions among all parties.

Learning the treaties

To achieve the intergovernmental agreements in Michigan, several court-facilitated mediation sessions took place. Residents of the county and reservation also became involved in a process that eventually required they learn what the treaties stated, said Mt. Pleasant Mayor Sharon Tilmann.

"The average citizen in our community was not aware of what was going on," she said. "We weren't experts on the treaty."

Former mayor of Mt. Pleasant and current city commissioner Kathy Ling said most people, herself included, thought the reservation was simply "east of town" and questions quickly emerged on jurisdictional, revenue and taxation rights.

"I didn't really understand the basis for that," Ling said about the lawsuit.

The reaction in Michigan was similar to the response in Riverton and on the Wind River Indian Reservation; Tilmann said the dispute generated a lot of fear.

"I didn't have anything against Indian Country, but what did that mean to me?" she said. "If all the rules went out the window (then) what were we left with?"

New agreements

Tribal councilman Ron Nelson explained that the tribe's main goal was to protect its authority after it had been challenged in past court disputes.

"Our goal was not to go in and take over the city ... we just wanted to work with everybody," Nelson said. "We want to govern our own people."

Former Michigan assistant attorney general John Wernet said everyone involved eventually agreed to sit down and with a "collective shrug" entered in discussion for formal agreements. Before they agreed, he said some discussions created animosity and created more damage than the underlying issue. Once trust and respect was invited, agreements were started and a positive path toward their goals was established.

Sean Reed, legal counsel for the tribe, said the tribe wasn't the side bringing the issues to the table. He said it mainly was concerned about a settlement recognizing the boundaries. After several mediations, agreements touched on all areas, such as law enforcement and property taxes. Ling said the parties realized an overlapping in governmental entities already was seen elsewhere in the state, thus allowing similar formats to be established between the tribe and city. Cross deputation, Tilmann said, rolled out to create many levels of security for all citizens and it remains a work in progress.

"There's bumps in the road," Tilmann said. "It's not all smooth sailing but they're working it out."

Indian child welfare, zoning and land use agreements also were settled.

Local response

The panel accepted questions and comments from those who attended the public forum Tuesday.

Sara Robinson, the Eastern Shoshone Tribe liaison to the governor's office in Wyoming, reminded those in attendance that unlike the Michigan tribe, the Wind River Indian Reservation is shared by two tribes and issues required "double" the work.

Eastern Shoshone Tribe chairman Darwin St. Clair Jr. agreed this difference brings more people to the table and added that more focus is needed to be given to the importance of good air quality.

"We are worried about our own people but, we are worried about our neighbors as well," St. Clair Jr. said.

Rep. Patrick Goggle, D-Ethete, asked about the protection or difference between private and public sectors and their compliance to work with each other.

Reed said the tribe and city are required to abide by each other's regulations and ordinances and each must also enforce what was set in place.

Although there was no direct air or water quality agreement with the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe and the city or state, Wernet suggested all governmental entities in Wyoming invest their time, patience and respect to engage in a process that could be settled outside of court and bring viable negotiations.

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