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GOP activist targeting tribal sovereignty again

Is the Washington state Republican Party taking another misguided run at tribal sovereignty?

They are, if Bob Eberle and his fellow Skagit County Republicans have anything to say about it.

Eberle lives on the Swinomish Indian Reservation on Puget Sound. He supports a Skagit County GOP platform that included a plank calling for federal intervention in tribal elections, forcing them to allow nonmembers to vote. He presents the notion as simple and inoffensive, a matter of fairness, and not an assault on the right of tribes to govern themselves. But the truth is that Eberle and his fellow travelers don’t believe in the right of tribes to govern themselves at all.

“This business about the Indians having sovereign authority is a bunch of bunk,” he said. “They adhere solely to laws passed by the U.S. Congress.”

Eberle said he hopes the state GOP – which is convening now in Tacoma – will adopt the plank, though the last time he and his fellows took on tribal sovereignty it didn’t go so well. In 2000, Eberle and John Fleming – a longtime opponent of tribal sovereignty who also lives on the Swinomish reservation – supported an even farther-reaching attempt to eliminate tribal sovereignty, including a provision that the government compensate people like Eberle and Fleming for the denial of their constitutional rights.

At the time, Fleming said that if tribes couldn’t be persuaded to just go along with the idea, “the U.S. Army and the Air Force and the Marines and the National Guard are going to have to battle back.”

This was a little too crazy for the GOP back then. Mainstream Republicans tripped over themselves backing away from the thing following a national controversy. Even Slade Gorton, no friend to tribal sovereignty, opposed it.

Now Eberle and Fleming are back, in slightly moderated form. They argue that if the tribes can assert authority over them, including law enforcement and land-use rules, and impose taxes on them, like utilities, then they ought to be able to vote. Absent any context, this sounds fair. In context – historical context and the context of Eberle and Fleming’s views – it’s ignorant.

Sovereignty is not bunk. The questions surrounding tribal authority and the relationship with the U.S. government are complicated and unique, and court rulings over time have not been consistent or perfectly applicable in broad ways. Some legal experts think court decisions in recent years have been eroding tribal authority; but you have to wander quite a ways off the path of any legitimate argument to conclude that it’s a “myth,” as Fleming calls it.

Some of the sovereignty arguments – setting aside the notion of natural, innate rights that Americans like to claim for themselves – stem most persuasively from the fact that the U.S. government negotiated treaties with tribes. Treaties are agreements between sovereigns; courts and lawmakers have, in the main, supported the notion that tribes have sovereign authority over their own affairs.

The unique relationship between the United States and the tribes raises difficult issues regarding nonmembers living on tribal lands – but none that would make a convincing case that the government ought to take control of tribal elections.

Chuck Tanner of Borderlands Research and Education, which monitors and defends tribal sovereignty, was around for the controversy in 2000. He’s been sounding an alarm about this year’s Skagit County platform.

“The two policy statements share an underlying logic and goal and both were introduced by individuals in the Skagit County GOP who have supported the outright termination of Indian tribal governments,” he wrote in a news release on the issue.

The GOP’s state convention is currently being held in Tacoma, and efforts to contact party representatives were unsuccessful. I have to think that the Skagit plank will remain where it belongs, out on the fringes, but we shouldn’t hold our breath. Party platforms are often hiding places for extreme views, and recent GOP platforms have contained some doozies: Idaho has called for repealing the 17th Amendment, returning to the gold standard and taking over state lands – and requiring candidates to pledge their allegiance to the planks.

Tanner is concerned that these proposals feed misconceptions and bigotry toward tribes and their rights to self-government. Eberle argues from a simple “taxation without representation” position that resonates with the American spirit – he says if he pays taxes or can be arrested by a tribal cop, he should be able to vote.

“If the Indians want to have authority over their own members, then have at it,” he said. “If they want to exert authority over the nontribal members, then (nonmembers) should have a vote.”

Eberle says he doesn’t have anything against his Swinomish neighbors.

“We get along great with the Indians here,” he insists. “We have no problem. We share the beach alongside them and everything and that’s great. We just think that in the United States of America, everybody ought to be equal and some ought not to be more equal than others.”

Eberle’s read his Orwell. Has he read any U.S. history?

“My hopes are that it won’t go through,” Tanner said. “It’s just adding to the confusion that people have about tribal sovereignty.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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