SPOKANE, Wash. – A law seminar recently held at Gonzaga University was unique because it was the inaugural continuing legal education seminar to be organized by the new Indian Law Section of the Spokane County Bar Association and was co-sponsored by Gonzaga University School of Law. It brought together experts in Indian law from throughout the region to discuss a variety of topics important to practitioners and students in Indian law wanting to improve and update their knowledge.
George Critchlow, the School of Law’s acting dean, welcomed the group and told how Gonzaga University’s original mission had been to educate Indian youth, especially Plateau tribes, but how local racism prevented that. This changed long ago. Seals of nine regional tribes are now displayed in the Barbieri Courtroom and the School of Law now has an Indian Law Section. “It brings us around to where we wanted to be 100 years ago.”
Juliana Repp, the Nez Perce chair of the Indian Law Section, also welcomed the group and Jessica-Lee Domebo, Colville, moderated the presentation. Domebo assumed the position of chair at the ILS annual meeting following the seminar.
The first session dealt with the Indian Child Welfare Act. A panel of four included a tribal attorney, child welfare expert, social worker and a tribal general counsel. “The wholesale separation of Indian children from their families is perhaps the most tragic and destructive aspect of American Indian life today,” said Brandelle Whitworth, general counsel for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe. She said the two most critical steps in the process of helping the system is the early identification of the child and early, open and frequent communication with the tribe.
Lorraine Parlange, Kalispel tribal attorney, pointed out that a 2007 study showed the discrepancy in child welfare cases between Native children and white children. “Indian children are 1.6 times as likely to be removed (from homes) and 2.2 times as likely to remain in foster care for over two years.”
It was also stressed that one does not have to be enrolled to be considered an Indian child, only that they are under 18 and eligible for tribal membership. It was also stressed that not all tribes or states are alike in their treatment of foster care for children. Examples are that Washington treats First Nations children living in Washington state as Indian children whereas Montana does not, or that foster homes are simply less numerous on some reservations than others.
It was also pointed out that Indian experts are only experts for their own tribe. It is important for the state to use them as they understand tribal customs which pertain to family organization and child rearing practices.
Repp, a Nez Perce attorney, described a couple of child custody cases, and laws and procedures used to get a case transferred from state to tribal court where a tribal court is better suited to take into consideration the unique customs and traditions of the particular child’s tribe. “I’ve done that five or six times.”
Another panel discussed tribal court practice and inter-jurisdictional issues. Martin Bohl, presiding judge for the Kalispel Tribe, commented that in working with tribes, “nothing is more important than understanding their history.” He said at one point inter-governmental agreements did not exist. “Originally there was a lack of familiarity. … and a reluctance to trust each other.”
Things have changed; there are now more inter-jurisdictional agreements as states look at tribes differently because of the economy. The tribes’ clout has grown. Bohl suggested those in school or recent graduates, “need to be familiar with your local agreements and what they should entail and should address, and you need to be the kind of practitioner to make them happen.”
Winona Tanner, chief judge of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Court, said there are seven tribes and courts in Montana. “All are unique to each other,” again stressing the differences in language, custom and tradition between tribes which causes differences in the courts.
Another panel dealt with labor and employment law issues. Greg Guedel, of Foster Pepper, discussed the United Auto Workers agreement with Foxwoods Resort Casino and its possible impact at other casinos. UAW is reaching out to new groups to expand diversity in its membership, including the approximately 2,500 dealers at Foxwoods. “This agreement is under the auspices of tribal law (not federal law), making it unique.” Strikes will not be allowed, nor will walk outs, reflections of Pequot tribal law. “Disputes will be handled in private arbitration.”
This brings up questions about its impact on unions organizing in Native American communities. Tribes should expect what happened at Foxwoods to be tried elsewhere.
Other panels discussed multi-jurisdictional regulatory oversight on the Spokane River and another focused on ethical issues arising in tribal and state multi-jurisdictional practice of law.