The cultural tensions in Benewah County, Idaho, are long-standing and problematic. The western portion of the rural county is dominated by the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe, where economic opportunities are expanding, thanks largely to the successful tribal casino. But the eastern portion is struggling. Add to this the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision that handed control of the lower third of Lake Coeur d’Alene to the tribe and there is plenty of fodder for resentment and, yes, outright bigotry.
But the situation isn’t hopeless. With the recent formation of the Benewah Human Rights Coalition, the founders hope to combat unwarranted fears by patiently and respectfully shining a light on the fact that reality isn’t so scary. The overall goal is to improve cooperation between the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and nontribal members.
Former County Commissioner Christina Crawford and others believe the divide is unnecessarily widened by misinformation and misunderstandings, so they formed the nonpartisan coalition in the hope that accurate information can narrow the differences. The tribe is not involved in the coalition but approves of its formation.
The model is the Kootenai County Human Rights Coalition, which arose in response to virulent strains of in-your-face racism. Tony Stewart’s group has done a fabulous job of spreading the message of tolerance with grace and dignity.
Along with being plain ugly, the discord in Benewah County is also fomenting dysfunction, with the latest example being the inability of county officials to come to a sensible solution to the problem of nontribal members committing crimes on tribal land. Before 2007, there was a cross-deputization plan that allowed tribal officers to enforce state law on the reservation. But that agreement was discontinued and efforts to renew it have been frustrated by unfounded fears. Recently, five tribal officers – but not all – were cross-deputized by the Benewah County sheriff, so perhaps a breakthrough is on the horizon.
Meanwhile, neighboring Kootenai County happily continues its cross-deputization agreement with the same tribe. None of the Benewah County fears about basic rights being abrogated, guns being seized and tribal deputies being untrained in state law has come to pass.
The Benewah Human Rights Coalition plans to set up a website and become a steady presence at community events. With this educational buffer in place, perhaps more people will open their minds, challenge their assumptions and banish their fears about sharing a county with a tribe.