UNCASVILLE, Conn. - Caution from the tribes is putting a hold on a Congressional bill to protect tribal sovereignty, Tex Hall, chairman of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a recent report card on NCAI issues.
Speaking at the 26th Annual National Convention of the Council for Tribal Employment Rights (CTER), Hall said, "The tribes feel we should slow down and take a closer look."
Congressional legislation to affirm tribal jurisdiction was one of the original goals of the Tribal Sovereignty Protection Initiative, proclaimed by the NCAI after a Sept. 11, 2001 leadership forum in Washington, D.C. The terrorist attacks of that date overshadowed the meeting, but it also inspired the Tribal Supreme Court Project, jointly run by NCAI and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF).
A resolution at the mid-June NCAI Mid-Year meeting at the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona urged the Sovereignty Protection Initiative not to introduce a Congressional bill without a formal vote of the tribes.
Hall said the New Mexico Pueblos pushed the resolution to protect their traditional courts. The "sticking point" in the bill, and a major issue in recent U. S., Supreme Court rulings, such as Nevada v. Hicks, is tribal jurisdiction over non-members. As a compromise, a bill affirming that jurisdiction would have allowed a right of appeal to federal courts.
"The tribes have trouble with federal court review of tribal courts, if the bill gives them the ability to prosecute non-members," Hall said.
Hall said the NCAI would grapple with the problem at its upcoming leadership meeting in Portland, Ore., from July 22 - 24. He said the second day of the meeting would focus on the sovereignty bill.
"We're getting picked off," he warned the CTER delegates at their convention banquet. "We need to unite."
The delegates in the lavishly appointed Mohegan Sun Convention Center applauded warmly.
"That applause should be heard across Indian country," Hall responded.
In his detailed run-down of NCAI issues, Hall also praised the work of the Supreme Court Project. In recent years, he said, Indian cases in the highest court "have been batting 23 percent.
"Federal prisoners for murder up for execution are batting 50 percent."
Results for Indians have improved notably, he said, since the Supreme Court Project began to coordinate the filing of amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs in major cases. These briefs, he said, present information and legal arguments that the court might otherwise miss. On issues of law enforcement jurisdiction, for instance, Supreme Court justices seemed unaware of the widespread use of cross-deputization agreements. "The reservations are not enclaves of lawlessness," Hall said.
"Four state attorneys general filed amicus briefs on behalf of the Bishop Paiute tribe," said Hall. The decision in Bishop Paiute Tribe v. Inyo County came on narrow grounds and avoided a much feared further erosion of tribal sovereignty.
"That is a victory," Hall said. "We need to celebrate that."
Hall said the project planned to intervene in an upcoming double jeopardy case. The cost of an amicus brief, he added, was $15,000.
His wide-ranging review also touched on Congressional initiatives on the Indian Trust Fund debacle and a call for re-establishment of Indian trade networks.
Addressing the concern of the convention, he praised CTER's work in sponsoring Tribal Employment Rights Ordinances and fostering Indian preference in hiring.
"When TERO was first established 26 years ago," he said, "all tribal programs originated with the federal government. Then TERO came along and people asked, 'What federal program created it?'
"When they were told it was not a federal program, it was created by the tribes, people said, 'Whoa, I didn't know that!'"
After the speech, John Navarro, president of the CTER, presented Hall with a blanket and the teasing comment, "I'm a pretty long-winded person too, but with not as many important things to say."