Northwest Indians have a thank-you of sorts for longtime adversary U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.
Normally independent tribes are being galvanized by Gorton’s proposal to peel back their sovereign immunity, said delegates to the 44th-annual meeting of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.
They oppose the plan but say some good is coming from it.
“He’s bringing us together,” said Bruce Wynne, chairman of the Spokane Tribe.
Wynne and others who spoke at the convention’s opening day Monday in Spokane used much of their time at the microphone to denounce the Washington Republican’s proposal and call for united action.
Shortly after the convention opened, they received a promise of help from U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt. The Spokane Republican said he would oppose the proposal if it passes the Senate and comes to the House.
“I don’t feel it’s appropriate to have these issues resolved in an appropriations bill without any hearings,” Nethercutt said later. “It needs to be analyzed. (Tribes) deserve a chance to argue their positions forcefully.”
Gorton’s proposal on tribal sovereign immunity, and another that would distribute federal funds to the tribes based on need, are part of the Senate’s Interior appropriations bill, which is to come up for a vote later this week. Members of the convention will monitor the vote through computer links to their lobbyists in Washington, D.C.
Win or lose, delegates to the convention already are talking about long-term campaigns to educate the public and members of Congress on tribal issues.
“In Congress, there are people astounded that there are Indians,” said Tim Wapato, a Colville tribal member. “‘Indians?’ they say. ‘We thought they left with John Wayne.”’ Gorton’s proposal on sovereign immunity would allow non-Indians to sue the tribes or their members in federal court. Currently, they must sue in tribal court unless the tribe waives immunity.
The doctrine of sovereign immunity is outdated, Gorton has said, and “places tribes above the law.”
Some delegates to the Spokane convention are particularly incensed by a comparison Gorton used last week in trying to make the case for his proposal.
He compared the case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant allegedly brutalized by New York City police, with that of Jered Gamache, a Yakima teenager killed in a traffic accident involving a Yakama tribal policewoman.
Louima is able to sue the city of New York and the officers involved, Gorton said. The Gamache family cannot sue the tribe, or the policewoman.
Jerry Meninick, vice chairman of Yakama Tribal Council, said the cases “are as different as night and day.” Louima was brutalized by officers acting illegally. Gamache was killed by an officer who was doing her job by responding to a report of a burglary.
The Gamache family is not denied legal recourse, Meninick said. It has a claim against the federal government, pending in U.S. District Court.
“Due process has been followed,” Meninick said.
While the Yakamas accused Gorton of trying to exploit the Luima case, the senator’s spokeswoman, Melissa Dollaghan, said it was the Indians who were emotionalizing the comparison. Gorton was merely looking at the two cases through “a legal prism” that compares the process available to each victim, she said.
Louima can sue the people responsible for his injuries. The Gamache family cannot sue the people they feel are responsible for their son’s death, Dollaghan said.
The fact that the Gamache family can sue the federal government merely makes Gorton’s point, she added. They wanted to sue the tribe, but are required by law to file a claim against the government.