SAN JACINTO, Calif. – After more than 50 years in effect, southern California Indian tribes are saying it’s time to repeal a law that gives jurisdiction of criminal offenses in some reservations to the state.
The who’s who of the region’s Indian country gathered Aug. 11 at the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians reservation to denounce Public Law 280, which they say is a “throwback” to a different era and nowadays archaic in a new day for American Indians.
The open forum attended by an estimated 200, including a couple dozen tribal leaders, follows a string of violence between tribal members and Riverside County sheriff’s deputies that left five Sobobas dead within a six-month span at or near the 6,000-acre Soboba reservation. Soboba Chairman Robert J. Salgado and Riverside County Sheriff Stanley Sniff signed a somewhat tenuous agreement in July intended to decrease tension and improve cooperation. In addition, the sheriff’s department has hired a tribal liaison.
But clearly, the rancor over the law has not lessened in the region, where some 25 Indian tribes live in an alpine, grassland and desert topography. And the acrimony now appears to have intensified, as many if not most the region’s tribes showed up to not only support the Soboba but to collectively call for the retrocession of criminal jurisdiction back to reservations.
“Understand we respect the law. We don’t think we are above the law, but we also have rights in Indian country. That’s what we stand up for,” Salgado said in his opening remarks to a large audience that packed a conference hall.
He said during the forum’s intermission he had felt that the lead to repeal the law fell on him in the wake of the killings on the reservation he has represented for 30 years. And he urged tribal leaders to vent their frustrations, experiences and proposals on P.L. 280 in a candid question and answer session: “But, for once, tell the truth about how you feel about Public Law 280. This is time that we come together as tribal people and tribal leaders to express yourself; and don’t hold anything back, because that’s what we are all about.”
The media was not allowed in that session, but one tribal official who was present and requested anonymity said tribal leaders chastised themselves for waiting until the killings to act against the long-despised law. They also expressed regret on how quietly the law passed in 1953, the official said.
Still, some vented even before the closed-door session. National Indian Justice Center Executive Director Joseph Myers, Pomo of Santa Rosa, reflected on how the law resulted in long-lasting impressions of cultural insensitivity: At 13, he and his 80-year-old grandfather encountered a state game warden on the banks of creek while fishing salmon. The warden broke his grandfather’s traditional spear that he had labored to craft, he said.
“[The warden] could have said, ‘Joe, this is a new day and there is no more fishing in the traditional way.’ He didn’t do that: he just did an act of violence and broke the work of my grandfather against his knee,” Myers said.
During the public session, leading Public Law 280 legal scholar Carole E. Goldberg of the University of California – Los Angeles discussed highlights of her nationwide study on law enforcement under P.L. 280. Among the most important, she said, was the disparity in performance views of law enforcement in reservations that have P.L. 280 jurisdiction and those that don’t. Performance ratings by reservation residents and state and county peace officers were wide in P.L. 280 jurisdictions but less in those that are not subject to it.
“That suggested that it wasn’t the reservation residents in Public Law 280 jurisdictions who were out of line. It was the inflated view of their own performance by state and county law enforcement and criminal justice divisions,” she said.
Another key finding, she said, was reservation residents’ complaints of inconsistent service by state and county law enforcement and the detrimental impact it has.
“And because there is not a regular relationship, when state and county law enforcement do come on to the reservations, they tend to come on [in a] less respectful [and] heavy-handed way,” Goldberg said.
Former police officer Alex Tortes, the new tribal liaison for the Riverside sheriff’s department, is a member of the Torres-Martinez Band of Cahuilla Indians. He said he was on his fourth week on the job.
“My function is to work with the tribe to see what they have to say so we can work out some type of a solution,” he said.
Salgado, who met with Tortes in early August, said he was “very impressed” with him. “I felt from his heart he was the right man. ... But he is only the messenger. He can take all the messages back to the leader, but if the leader doesn’t have the heart then we are back to square one.”