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Sides to work on tribal hunting

Thu., Sept. 29, 2011

Coeur d’Alenes, Benewah County urged to avoid litigation

Native and non-native residents of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation are going to have to work out a local solution to their latest conflict over the right of tribal members to hunt on private property if they want to avoid a drawn-out court battle, a federal official said Tuesday evening.

Speaking at a confrontational meeting at the Plummer Community Hall, Wendy Olson, U.S. attorney for Idaho, said there is no single source of law that answers the question of whether tribal hunters are trespassing on nontribal land.

“I don’t get to make that decision,” Olson said in response to those in the crowd looking for an immediate resolution to a decades-old bone of contention. “Ultimately,” she said, “it will be resolved through litigation.”

But the federal government’s highest law enforcement officer in Idaho advised leaders on both sides to not go down that long trail.

An hour and a half later, tribal Chairman Chief Allan and Benewah County Commissioner Phil Lambert appeared to take Olson’s advice.

“We have given our word. We should go home and try to work it out,’’ Allan said.

“If you are willing to sit down, we will sit down with you,” Lambert said.

The amicable words came at the end of a rancorous evening that began inauspiciously with Benewah County Farm Bureau President Del Rust introducing Olson, county Prosecutor Doug Payne and other nontribal officials to “a meeting about private property rights.”

Rust either didn’t recognize or didn’t care to introduce Allan and several other Tribal Council members who came to the meeting without being formally invited by the bureau.

It was not the first time there has been such a confrontation between nontribal residents bent on defending individual liberties and Coeur d’Alenes just as adamant about tribal sovereignty.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2001 that the southern third of Lake Coeur d’Alene belongs to the tribe, there have been clashes about everything from dock permits to law enforcement authority.

Advocating the rights of nontribal residents was Payne, who advised Olson in a Sept. 13 letter to invoke the jurisdiction he lacks “to prosecute tribal trespassers.”

“Tensions are running high on this reservation, and conflict between armed hunters and armed landowners is very dangerous,” Payne wrote.

The prosecutor, along with Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts, has led opposition to cross-deputizing tribal police, a deal accepted by Kootenai County, which allows the tribe to enforce state law on nontribal members.

To bolster his stand on hunting, Payne cites a 1960 opinion written by a regional solicitor for the Interior Department that there is no right for Indians “to hunt and fish on the ceded lands of their reservation” and that such rights “do not remain in the Indian after disposal of the land but goes with the land.”

Olson, however, dismissed that argument in favor of a 1968 decision by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, in which tribal hunting and fishing rights were retained by treaty even after Congress terminated the Menominees’ federal recognition.

“I believe the weight of the authority would be on the side of the tribe,” she said.

Like other tribes, the Coeur d’Alenes saw their lands diminished by the Dawes Act of 1887 so that today little more than 20 percent of reservation property is owned by the tribe.

Non-native property owners claim that they are trespassed upon by hunters, presumably tribal members.

Russell Lowry, whose family has farmed land on the reservation since 1942, said he couldn’t understand why anyone would enter someone else’s property to hunt without permission.

Nevertheless, Lowry said, “It would take guts to run out and ask somebody with a gun whether they had a right to be there.”

Farmer Mike Ingersoll, who owns 40 acres and leases 300 acres on the reservation, said it was an issue of safety. He must protect cattle he runs from animal predation, and somebody could get hurt by accident, he said.

A tribal member who didn’t give his full name said he had hunted on the reservation most of his life and that even having such a meeting about whether he had the right was degrading.

“You live in our nation and want to change our law,” said the tribal member, who added that he had been threatened with weapons and one day he would fire back. Allan rose to quiet such talk. While not relinquishing the tribe’s right to hunt all lands within the reservation, he said the tribe respects property. A small percentage of tribal members cause the problems and spoil it for everyone else, he said.

Allan said he has repeatedly offered to meet with Benewah County leaders to resolve differences, but events like the meeting Tuesday only serve to inflame emotions on both sides.

“Why does it have to be like this?” he asked. “Stop this nonsense.”

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