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Homeland security concerns continue

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BROWNING, Mont. - It used to be that the only problems the Blackfeet Nation had regarding its border with Canada were occasional arguments with customs officials over the transport of ceremonial eagle feathers.

But now, the Blackfeet are concerned that their 35 miles of remote international boundary could become a portal for terrorists to bring weapons of destruction into the United States. And like tribes everywhere in America, the Blackfeet have had difficulty getting attention or money from the Department of Homeland Security. In fact, they have received no anti-terrorism funding to date, and tribal officials say isolated crossings are patrolled only sporadically by ill-equipped BIA police and tribal officers.

"Our people know this country," said Blackfeet council member Ervin Carlson. "They know the people who go back and forth across the border. I believe they would recognize suspicious people. Because this is our land, we have a special interest in making sure it is safe and secure."

Carlson said the state of Montana, which distributes federal Homeland Security money, has not been generous to the Blackfeet, or other Indian tribes. The 2002 Homeland Security Act puts tribal governments on a level with cities on the priority list.

"It's kind of a given that tribes are always the last in line and we're always having to fight for our fair share," he said.

But the issue of giving tribes more defensive money and authority is controversial on the national level. A bill to amend the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to put tribal governments on an equal plane with state governments has come under criticism from the Citizen's Equal Rights Alliance and other groups, who fear enhanced tribal homeland defense will open the door to arrests of non-Indians on tribal lands.

In a recent letter to Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, CERA complained that S.578 gives "the inherent independent supremacy to impose whatever form of government, constitution and tribal judicial system they choose on reservations." CERA, a South Dakota group, has long opposed the concept of tribal governments having authority to arrest non-Indians.

CERA said it fears the Homeland Security fix is a backdoor attempt to overturn Nevada v. Hicks, the 2001 Supreme Court case that upheld the right of outside law enforcement agencies to serve warrants on reservations for crimes committed off the reservation.

"This bill will devalue property values, discourage economic activities and damage race relations in 'Indian country,'" said CERA in a statement.

Underlying some of the concern is a fear that a rogue tribal government could brand anybody a "terrorist" and arrest them under the provisions of the Homeland Security fix.

But the National Congress of American Indians called that assertion untrue, and said the only motive was to give tribal authorities the right to detain suspected terrorists on reservations. Suspects would be tried in federal courts, not tribal courts, and only those suspected of terrorism could be arrested by tribal police.

"It is a dramatic irony that tribal peoples indigenous to what is now called the United States have always come together to secure our homelands, a phrase now adopted by the federal government, but are now excluded from participating in strategies and processes to better protect everyone, including tribal citizens," said the NCAI in a statement.

NCAI president Tex Hall, who is also the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, added: "The defense of infrastructure located on tribal lands must be recognized as an essential piece of our nation's security plan. The exclusion of tribal governments in the implementation of national homeland security strategy places both Indian and non-Indian populations at risk."

He pointed to his own people's lands on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, which contains the large Garrison Dam, as well as several nuclear missile silos. The state has allocated only $73,000 for Indian reservations out of a total federal budget of $13.2 million, Hall said.

While the amendment is still stuck in the Indian Affairs Committee, the 15,560-member Blackfeet Nation says it will continue to try to watch their border to the north with the limited law enforcement they have.

The concern that a member of al-Queda might use the Canadian border as a thruway to American targets is not an idle one. Algerian Ahmed Ressam was caught in December 1999 at the checkpoint in Port Angeles, Wash. with a trunk full of explosives. Prosecutors say he was heading to the Los Angeles International Airport to blow up a terminal. He was caught by alert U.S. Customs Agent Diana Dean, who noticed he was sweating, despite the night chill.

There are few large-scale targets on the Blackfeet's 1.5 million acre reservation, but the grass and timberlands are bisected by a major freight rail link, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line from Chicago to Seattle. Railroad officials have not been cooperative at helping the tribe keep a watch over the line, said tribal secretary Gordon Monroe. The tribe has clashed with Burlington Northern in a lengthy federal lawsuit over a disputed "possessory interest tax" on the railroad.

Carlson said a good part of the Blackfeet's motivation in pursuing more Homeland Security money and authority was simple patriotism.

"It's just as much our duty to protect the country as anybody else, being Native Americans," he said.