Idaho

Shoshone-Bannock Tribe trying to end Idaho’s legal reach

Dancers perform on the opening evening of the annual Shoshone-Bannock Indian Festival at Fort Hall in 2008. The 544,000-acre Fort Hall Indian Reservation is bordered on the north by the Snake River and has two major roadways running through it.
Dancers perform on the opening evening of the annual Shoshone-Bannock Indian Festival at Fort Hall in 2008. The 544,000-acre Fort Hall Indian Reservation is bordered on the north by the Snake River and has two major roadways running through it. AP file

Leaders with the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe say they no longer want the state of Idaho to have legal domain over the reservation.

Nearly a half-century ago, Congress passed Public Law 280, which gave Idaho jurisdiction over the Shoshone-Bannocks in seven areas previously held by the federal government. They included road management, juvenile justice and mental health services.

Tribal members say the law failed because the state has never provided those resources directly on the reservation. They also argue that the law prohibits the tribe from pursuing federal funding to build up its own resources because the state is supposed to be in charge of overseeing them.

“As an American, you wouldn’t go to Canada to get health care,” said William Bacon, the tribe’s attorney. “But that’s how it is any time one of our members has to leave the reservation to get health care. We have to leave our land and go to a new country.”

Several years ago, the tribe wanted to build a new jail on the reservation. The federal government denied its request for funding. It said the state should pick up the $20 million tab because of Public Law 280, Bacon said. But the state also refused to fund the project, leaving the tribe to take on the debt.

“I don’t think the state knew what it was taking on when it agreed to take over,” he said.

Leaders have called for an abandonment of the policy for years, but the issue has failed to gain traction in the Idaho Statehouse. Yet last year, Bacon asked lawmakers on the state’s Council on Indian Affairs to again consider retrocession.

The plea worked. In March, Sen. Jim Guthrie, a Republican from Inkom and chairman of the council, submitted a request to the state’s auditing agency, the Office of Performance Evaluations, to study the effects of a retrocession. The report is expected to be released in February.

Retrocession would first require the Legislature amending state law to remove the Shoshone-Bannock from the list of tribes it oversees. It also would require approval from the U.S. Interior secretary, with consultation with the U.S. attorney general, to grant the request.

“I think we need to look at this from the tribe’s perspective,” Guthrie said. “If they want to move in that direction and the study supports that, then it makes me more inclined to do something.”

The Fort Hall reservation is home to 3,600 Shoshone-Bannocks on territory less than a third its original size, the result of an 1872 government surveying error and because tribal land was reduced for white settlement.

Tribal authorities are often kept busy with methamphetamine labs, child abuse and domestic violence. As a former Bannock County commissioner, Guthrie said these issues can get confusing when local law enforcement and tribal members disagree over who should be in charge.

“Let’s be honest, law enforcement can be a little territorial. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there also needs to be a line of authority,” Guthrie said.

Meanwhile, officials with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare say they are evaluating Public Law 280 and the effects of retrocession.

According to the agency’s spokesman, the department offers several mental health resources to tribal members on the reservation upon request. It also has created a special team to take public assistance applications over the phone or online so tribal members don’t have to leave the reservation.

The agency has never received extra funding to help provide these services.

In the late 1960s, Congress amended PL 280 to allow states to give back jurisdictional authority to tribes. Since then, three bills have been introduced in the Idaho Legislature that would have retroceded all or part of the state’s jurisdiction. None of them has gained momentum.

“Not a lot of people know what PL 280 is, and those who do, don’t want it to change,” said Blaine Edmo, chairman of the Fort Hall Business council, which runs reservation affairs.

Four of Idaho’s neighboring states — Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — have given up jurisdiction for at least one tribe. Most recently, the Yakima Nation in Washington successfully retroceded from the state in April.

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