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Supreme Court Declines Native Cases

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The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a Northern Arapaho jurisdictional issue, leading one attorney involved in the litigation to assert that the federal government “should not be deferring to state government.”

“I believe it is Indian country,” James Drummond, attorney, said of Riverton, Wyo., located in central Wyoming and surrounded by the Wind River Reservation of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal nations.

Andrew John Yellowbear, a Northern Arapaho tribal member, was convicted in 2006 of first-degree murder in the death of his 22-month-old daughter, Marcela Hope Yellowbear, after prolonged abuse, and is serving a life sentence in state prison. The child’s mother, Macalia Blackburn, also a Northern Arapaho tribal member, was sentenced to 60 years in prison as an accessory.

Yellowbear had asked lower courts to set aside his conviction, contending that the crime took place in Indian country. While the site of the crime was not within the original city limits of Riverton when it was incorporated, Yellowbear argued that all of Riverton is within the reservation.

Only tribal or federal courts had jurisdiction, he contended, a position supported by the Northern Arapaho Tribe in a friend-of-the-court brief. The tribe also issued a statement that its interest was in maintaining the legal integrity of its reservation boundary and that it was not seeking to defend Yellowbear.

“I think the courts got it wrong here,” said Drummond, who was Yellowbear’s defense attorney. “The reservation was never disestablished, but it (Yellowbear’s case) was still allowed to be tried in state court.”

The murder’s location was central to Yellowbear’s argument, because if it had been determined that it occurred in legally defined “Indian country,” it likely would have been heard in federal court under statutory guidelines that take into account the location and nature of a crime as well as the ethnicity of perpetrator and victim.

“Indian country” is broadly considered to be land under federal jurisdiction set aside primarily for tribal use, including all land within Indian reservations and all lands outside reservations under federal superintendence and designated primarily for Indian use.

The Supreme Court also declined the petition of a Pine Ridge, S.D. man who had challenged a lower court’s standing to hear his drug distribution case, contending the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 divested the court of jurisdiction.

Donroy Ghost Bear, an Oglala Lakota tribal member, pleaded guilty in 2008 to conspiring to distribute cocaine on Pine Ridge Reservation. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and received additional penalties.

In addition to seeking a reduction of his sentence in an initial appeal to District Court, Ghost Bear said one provision of the Fort Laramie Treaty requires the government to give notice before seizing persons in Indian country, and a failure to do so is a jurisdictional defect that would bar prosecution in federal court.

Among other things, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later ruled, grant of citizenship to American Indians makes them subject to the same restrictions as those imposed on any other American citizen and Congress has abrogated or modified any treaty provisions to the contrary.

The Supreme Court does not necessarily offer reasons for declining to hear petitions brought to its attention from lower courts.