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Fourth Annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference

People and Place in the Rural American West

Missoula, Montana, March 17-19

Panel 4: Perspectives on Tribal Law and Policy in the Rural West– Challenges and Successes

« Panel 3: Housing

Keynote: Lisa Pruitt »


The vast majority of the nation’s federally recognized Indian tribes and their land bases are located in the rural American West. Over 300 distinct Native communities call the region home. Yet despite their undeniable presence throughout the region, tribal law and policy remains largely an unacknowledged force in shaping the rural American West. In rural areas in particular, tribal law and policy has significant everyday implications, including civil jurisdiction, water and land rights, economic development, taxation, and self-government. This panel sought to highlight both the recent successes and ongoing challenges in tribal law and policy, and more broadly, address how tribal self-determination has been a defining political and economic force in the rural American West.

Held March 18, 2016 at the University of Montana in Missoula, MT

Speakers Click to cue video

Panel Recap

Monte Mills (video), co-director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic at the University of Montana, began his talk by announcing that he’d scrapped his prepared remarks. Instead, he invited listeners to revisit topics they had heard discussed by earlier speakers during the conference and to consider what wasn’t being clearly addressed: the Native American perspective. As he ticked off various topics: broadband Internet access; coal mining in Montana; the transfer of public lands; and the very sense of place; he illustrated the absence of indigenous voices in the conversation.

These issues, he emphasized, have implications and impacts in Indian country, and the inclusion of a tribal perspective was essential to create a fully collaborative process.  Methamphetamine addiction, Mills noted as an example, is something many tribes struggle with. In their case however, meth dealers may not necessarily be tribal, negating the ability of tribal police to prosecute them. (These types of legal gray areas would re-emerge later in the panel with Barbara Creel’s presentation).

James Allison (video), a historian from Christopher Newport University in Virginia, provided a historical perspective on Montana tribes and energy policy. The Montana region, Allison stated, has a highly sought-after type of coal that produces less sulfur and is considered less environmentally harmful. Large-scale extraction of western coal started after the 1938 Indian Mineral Leasing Act, which opened a large amount of highly desirable tribal land to mining companies. The Act allowed tribes to lease their land, but not manage the development. In pursuit of economic self-determination, Allison described how the tribes formed the Council of Energy Resource Tribes in 1975, which brought together twenty-five tribes, including the Navajo and Crow Nations, and set the stage for the passage of another government act.

The Indian Mineral Development Act in 1982 gave tribes sovereign authority to manage mineral resources, though they were still subject to federal approval. Unfortunately for the tribes, their breakthrough would coincide with an energy glut that stopped the tribal energy industry in its tracks. Still, Allison’s presentation served to illuminate a fragment of history that serves to inform the examination of current efforts toward coal and other energy development.

Justice, or lack thereof, was the theme of Barbara Creel’s presentation (video) , which addressed the rights of Native Americans under the U.S. Constitution. Creel is a professor of law at the University of New Mexico. The historical concept of the “civilization of the Indian,” Creel said, served instead to further the “criminalization of the Indian,” when embodied in laws like the Major Crimes act of 1885, which extended federal criminal jurisdiction onto sovereign tribal lands. It also led to a fractured legal system in tribal areas, Creel said, leading to gaps in tribal sovereignty. These gaps often leave Indians without clear rights, like the right to counsel.  Throughout her talk, Creel provided examples of the such gray areas. One example is the inability of tribal police to punish non-Indian offenders who commit crimes on a reservation. The 2013 Violence Against Women Act addressed a small portion of that problem by giving tribes jurisdiction over those convicted of domestic violence on the reservation. The examples and case studies Creel highlighted suggested that the rights of Native Americans in the U.S. legal system are often sharply limited.

Mark Trahant (video), a veteran journalist and newly appointed professor at the University of North Dakota, said he hoped to offer a original and alternative perspective to mainstream coverage of western politics. He discussed current Native lawmakers and candidates, and explored how the system could be altered to increase the number of votes from Native Americans across the country. He emphasized that the U.S. needs representation and votes from Natives, and proposed up the idea of an Indian Country primary as a way to motivate and build a native voting base. Across the country, there are 73 Native American legislators in office, and Trahant is constantly watching the field for more. He already has a name in mind as a candidate for “Indian Country’s Obama”– State Representative Paulette Jordan from Idaho.  He also praised the candidacy of Denise Juneau, a Mandan and Hidatsa tribe member who is seeking Montana’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against first-term incumbent Ryan Zinke. In announcing her run, Trahant said, Juneau proudly reported that her family had spent “54 generations in Montana.”

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Keynote: Lisa Pruitt »




Rural West Conference Volume

Bridging the Distance

Common Issues of the Rural West

Edited by David B. Danbom
Foreword by David M. Kennedy

Published in cooperation with the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University
The University of Utah Press has published Bridging the Distance, a book by the Rural West Initiative of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Edited by the distinguished historian David B. Danbom and with a foreword by Center co-founding director David M. Kennedy, the book explores the Rural West across four dimensions: Community, Land, Economics – and defining the Rural West itself. The book is the result of work presented at the first Conference on the Rural West, which took place in Ogden, Utah, in October 2012.