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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Guest Opinion: Tribes deserve seat on transit commission

Carol Evans

The Spokesman-Review editorial (“Tribes don’t merit seat on transit commission,” June 16) highlights a disappointing missed opportunity to build relationships between tribal and local governments. Among the divisive words, the editorial repeats inaccurate statements about tribes and leaves unchallenged even more divisive statements.

The editorial itself is based on faulty assumptions – the writer did not even bother to contact representatives from the Spokane Tribe to verify or discredit presumed “facts.” For example, the editorial did not even get the name of the Spokane Regional Transportation Council correct. Further, SRTC is focused on much more than transit. Beyond regional transportation system planning, SRTC provides transportation funding, conducts transportation studies, transportation safety analysis, census information analysis, air quality conformity and analysis, freight transportation planning, traffic count data, manages geographic information services, state and federal reporting and travel demand modeling that all local jurisdictions impact and share, including tribal governments.

And while the editorial repeatedly charges that mere partisan politics is behind this whole issue, it is worth mentioning that just a few miles away, at the “North East Washington” Regional Transportation Planning Organization, which represents Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, all three local tribes have voting seats at their table – our table – with a welcoming attitude from all peer jurisdictions.

This is not complicated, and our friends in northeast Washington are getting it right, so why do individuals who lead SRTC continue to make excuses for excluding the tribes from regional transportation planning? It is worth remembering, as Rep. Marcus Riccelli points out, this legislation would never have been needed were it not for a small number of individuals who sit on the SRTC refusing to do the right thing by allowing tribes a seat at the table.

Tribes have been segregated and excluded from decision-making processes for generations, and it’s disheartening to see The Spokesman’s editorial page join in by reinforcing the erroneous perceptions of a small number of influential individuals. We all expect our leaders to work together to forge partnerships with regional governments. The approach a small contingent of SRTC board members are taking is not leadership, and it certainly is not the high road, as the editorial unconvincingly argues.

We should be asking ‘Who benefits from keeping us divided?’ Because implications that tribal governments are different and, therefore, we should place them – tribal people – into a separate but not-so-equal corner of the regional planning dialogue is an unhealthy solution. What exactly do a few members of SRTC fear if a local tribe “plays the sovereign card?” Different governmental jurisdictions bring different assets to the table. Tribes bring their unique historical and cultural perspectives and their sovereignty to the table, among other things, which is nothing to be afraid of. The editorial also does not recognize the fact that tribes bring fiscal resources to the table as well, such as Bureau of Indian Affairs transportation funds, which may be spent on all roads that serve tribal properties, including county roads, state and federal highways, and local roads.

The sad part is the ingredients for a harmonious, respectful relationship between the tribes and local governments fit on a short list: communication, respect and a truly good-faith effort to engage with, learn from and grow with each other. There is nothing special about it, beyond a commitment to those simple ingredients.

We want to have a voice in regional transportation planning because we believe the Spokane Tribe can be a strong and effective partner with all local governments in the region, from seeking increased federal funding for projects to helping build consensus for further planning integration across the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area.

Things are changing, as they always do, and the region’s local tribes are now significant jurisdictional players – bigger than most jurisdictions within Spokane County. Why The Spokesman-Review and a few individuals on SRTC’s board of directors wish to exclude us from regional planning conversations is testament to the rise of local tribal jurisdictions, and how we’re altering traditional power dynamics within Spokane County.

On behalf of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, we sure are looking forward to the future.

Carol Evans in the Chairwoman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians.

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