Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. To learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column, click here.

Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: Tribes introduce treaty rights as factor in federal land debate

BOISE – A new wrinkle was added last week to the debate over Idaho lawmakers’ attempts to take over federal public land in the state.

Representatives of Idaho Indian tribes pointed out that their treaty rights, which date back more than 200 years, guarantee them rights to hunt, fish, gather and pray at cultural sites on those federal lands. If the state were to take over the land, it’d violate the treaties.

“The tribes unequivocally oppose this notion,” Chairman Nathan Small of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes told the Legislature’s Federal Lands Interim Committee.

The hearing room at the state Capitol went silent as Small made his impassioned statement. “The wealth of public lands within Idaho’s borders is intended to protect the way of life … from generation to generation,” he said. It’s not, he said, to be sold off to private entities or used for corporate interests – those who would “come out, rip, rape and run.” He noted that 17 phosphate mines in eastern Idaho are Superfund sites. “Are you proud of that legacy?” he asked. “Everybody made a few dollars at the time.”

The United States, he told the lawmakers, “entered into a solemn treaty with the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and peoples,” guaranteeing them the “off-reservation fishing, hunting and gathering rights which we continue to exercise on unoccupied lands of the United States.” Idaho doesn’t have the resources to manage all those lands, Small said, even in normal years, let alone in extreme fire seasons.

“This is not sound legislation, and it is not a good path for our state and those of us who have lived here since time immemorial,” Small told the committee. “It’s essential that we have that opportunity to leave the reservation to hunt, to fish, to gather and to protect our cultural sites out there. Our treaty says you shall have those rights so long as you make the reservation your permanent home. … We retain all of those rights.”

Small noted that his tribes’ off-reservation cultural sites are hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old. The tribe’s presence in what’s now Idaho, he added, predates Idaho territory and state designations.

Officials of the Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce tribes sounded similar concerns about their treaty rights and future management of public lands in Idaho. Helo Hancock of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe noted that only Congress can transfer the lands.

“If the federal government or Congress is going to be transferring title to any lands, they should be transferred back to their rightful ownership, which would be Indian tribes in many cases,” Hancock told the committee. “Indian tribes were the first stewards of these lands, and there is certainly no better land manager.”

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, who is co-chairing the committee with Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, the sponsor of the legislation, noted that the panel is scheduled to continue meeting for the next year and a half before making any decision. “I’d just remind the people that are here that this is an ongoing process,” he said. “We’re going to be here for over another year from now going over this. … Whatever our outcome is, hopefully it will be very deliberative.”

Otter wants delay

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter says he wants a delay in the individual mandate to purchase health insurance under the Affordable Care Act to allow Idaho’s insurance exchange to get its own technology platform up and running, rather than piggybacking on the troubled federal site. He wrote to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last week, requesting a year’s delay.

“They say the first step to getting out of a hole is to stop digging,” Otter said in a statement. “Folks, we can stay mired in the would have/could have/should have of this situation and let our partisan or philosophical petulance overtake us, or we can focus instead on climbing out of this hole and asserting our Idaho independence and sovereignty by finishing the job we started last winter. I choose to climb.”

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached at (208) 336-2854 or

More from this author