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Yakama Nation Given a Step Towards Self-Governance

The Department of the Interior has accepted from the state of Washington the partial civil and criminal jurisdiction it held over the Yakama Nation.
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For more than half a century the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation in the southwestern portion of Washington has seen its civil and criminal authority held by the state under Public Law 280. That’s all about to change.

Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn announced on October 19 that the Department of the Interior has accepted from the state of Washington the partial civil and criminal jurisdiction it held over the Yakama Nation, a federally recognized tribe.

“While tribal self-governance has long been the Federal Government’s guiding principle for Federal Indian policy, it has been slow in coming in the area of criminal justice,” Washburn said in a letter conveying the decision to the Yakama Nation. “We believe that this step will advance tribal self-governance and tribal sovereignty for the Nation. More importantly, we believe that it will produce improved public safety for the Nation and its people.”

The process for retrocession began in 2012 when state legislature enacted legislation that reflected a path for the state and tribal nations to follow. The Yakama Nation filed a petition in July of that year which led to government-to-government consultations. The result, a Memorandum of Understanding in 2013 that addressed the procedures of serving state court arrest warrants on tribal members on trust land within the reservation by Yakama County law enforcement.

Then Washington Governor, Christine Gregoire, submitted her proclamation on retrocession to the Secretary of the Interior for approval in January 2014 as one of her last acts as Governor. Since then, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Justice Services (OJS) has been working closely with the Yakama Nation Tribal Police Department and Corrections to determine the capacity of the Nation’s law enforcement services.

A final assessment by the OJS was submitted in September 2014 stating the police force would be prepared to handle an increase in responsibilities.

“It is truly a great day for the Yakama people,” said Tribal Council Chairman JoDe Goudy in a statement via the Yakama Herald-Republic. “For decades, our nation has been denied basic rights of self-governance within our own lands. Today makes an important step toward righting that wrong.”

P.L. 280 (67 Stat. 588) was enacted in 1953 during the federal Indian policy period that has become known as the Termination Era. The law which gave states the authority by Congress “to assume criminal jurisdiction over American Indians on federal Indian reservations and to allow civil litigation that had come under tribal or federal court jurisdiction to be handled by state courts,” according to an Interior release. Washington is one of 16 states with P.L. 280 in effect.

P.L. 280 shifted criminal jurisdiction on federal Indian lands by transferring it from the federal government to certain states – and in doing so the law has been widely criticized by tribes and states alike for creating more harm than good.

The Interior release states, “Today’s decision attempts to remedy some of the jurisdictional problems Public Law 280 created on the Yakama Reservation.”

A legislative shift in 1968 has pushed states to retrocede jurisdiction back to the U.S. via the Secretary of the Interior. Since then, 31 tribes have seen the authority shifted with the most recent being the Santee Sioux Nation in 2006.

The Interior release addresses a certain misconception about what “retrocession” actually does. As the release states, “it does not change the boundaries of a tribe’s reservation nor expand or contract a tribe’s formal legal authority or jurisdiction. The tribe’s jurisdiction will simply no longer be concurrent with the state’s; instead, tribal jurisdiction will be exclusive for certain purposes.”

The Yakama Nation resides on a reservation comprised of over 1.1 million acres, which was established in 1855 by a treaty signed by Washington Territory Governor Isaac Stevens and tribal representatives. The Yakama Reservation is located on the east side of the Cascade Mountains in Yakima and Klickitat counties.

The tribe and county will have six months to work out the details and coordinate efforts to make the retrocession move forward smoothly. However, Yakima County Prosecutor Joe Brusic told the Yakama Herald-Republic the county and tribe have not held formal discussions since 2013.

“I want to do everything possible in my role as prosecutor to see that retrocession works, but I believe we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Brusic told the Yakama Herald-Republic.

Interior’s decision of retrocession will be fully implemented as of 12:01 a.m. PST on April 19, 2016.

ICTMN will address the subject of retrocession and P.L. 280 in more detail in an upcoming piece.