Wyoming and the tribes who share the Wind River Indian Reservation in the state are still waiting for their day in court to resolve a border dispute on the reservation, but U.S. Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has drafted a bill that would do that without the courts. Enzi’s bill seeks “to clarify the boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation” by defining them as the borders drawn by a 1905 treaty.
In December, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes status as a state for the purpose of air monitoring. The reservation has air pollution sources on its land, including energy development, and lies downwind of additional pollution sources beyond its borders. With only one air monitor within Wind River’s borders and various health concerns, the tribes want to expand their air monitoring network. In granting the tribes the right to apply for grants to fund monitoring efforts, the EPA had to define the tribes’ jurisdiction. After consultation with the Department of the Interior, the EPA concluded that a 1905 treaty that opened sections of the reservation to white settlement did not diminish the reservation’s borders. According to the EPA, Wind River’s borders encompass the city of Riverton and thousands of acres the state has long considered non-tribal land.
When the EPA announced its decision, Eastern Shoshone Business Council Chairman, Darwin St. Clair Jr., said “most of the Native people have said this is righting a historical wrong and we’ve always owned the land, which I would agree with since we’ve been here since time immemorial.”
But Wyoming Governor Matt Mead said the EPA overstepped its jurisdiction and the state filed an appeal with the 10th Circuit Court, where the case remains stalled. Mistrust among tribal and non-tribal governments about each side’s intentions has grown and the quick state reaction roused racial tensions in Riverton. Grassroots efforts, like a new group made up of reservation residents and called the Wind River Citizen’s Equality Commission, have formed to encourage cooperation among stakeholders in the region.
The state, meanwhile, has pushed ahead efforts to undo EPA’s border decision. During the state’s legislative session this winter, state lawmakers passed a bill appropriating funds to fight EPA’s decision and others like it in the future.
Now, Sen. Enzi’s draft bill attempts to address the issue on a federal level.
Enzi said he does not want to change what he sees as the current borders of Wind River, but rather to define them in order to maintain the status quo.
In response to why the Senator decided not to wait for resolution from the federal court, Enzi’s spokesman Daniel Head said “the EPA and court decision based on EPA actions should not be used to change long-established boundaries. The boundaries were set by Congress a long time ago and they should be set by the elected representatives of the people. The EPA has no business deciding land boundaries, but its action and arguments in court based on those actions could be used for these purposes.”
Governor Mead’s spokesman, Renny MacKay, in a statement, said Mead appreciates Enzi’s efforts and believes any changes to jurisdictional boundaries should stem from Congressional action.
But the Northern Arapaho Tribe, in a statement, called Enzi’s draft bill a betrayal. Northern Arapaho leaders said Enzi has “turned his back” on his tribal constituents in the state. And citing Enzi’s opposition to the tribes’ efforts to establish Indian gaming a decade ago, the tribe says it’s not the first time, either.
“It’s chilling to see this kind of attack on Indian country in 2014,” said Darrell O’Neal, Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman.
Fremont County Commissioner Keja Whiteman, who lives on an undisputed part of the Wind River Reservation, doesn’t support the bill either. Wind River Reservation is in Fremont County, and she says the political climate in the state is such that “there is no effort to do anything that is beneficial for our tribal nations. Which is unfortunate because if Native people were more prosperous Fremont County and Wyoming would benefit. There is a continuous effort to “fight” tribes by our own elected officials.”
Enzi has not yet introduced his bill. Head said he’s awaiting comments from stakeholders. But Enzi does have support from the rest of the Wyoming Congressional delegation, which includes Senator John Barrasso and Representative Cynthia Lummis.
Meanwhile, the tribes can proceed with air monitoring initiatives on undisputed land. The status as a state has been put on hold on the disputed parcels pending resolution.