9/21/2016 8:25:00 AM Tribe seeks to eliminate federal oversight
The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community’s leadership wants to amend the tribe’s constitution so that its actions will no longer be subject to approval by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribe has not responded to this newspaper’s requests to elaborate on its plan. Stan Speaks, the regional director for the Pacific Northwest Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs said, “That situation has not been admitted or approved. We will be meeting with the tribe in the very near future to discuss the issue.” In the meantime, he would not say anymore about it, “until I have an opportunity to meet with the tribe and their attorneys,” he said. Here’s what the tribe has laid out for its members in two issues of the tribal newsletter Qyuuqs, formerly Kee-Yoks: In June, the tribe informed members that the Indian Senate would ask the Bureau of Indian Affairs to approve an election to amend the Swinomish constitution. The reasons laid out included: “protect all of its territory, not just the Reservation and the natural resources located within that territory;” and to “regulate action by non-tribal members that potentially may harm this territory and its natural resources.” According to its newsletter, the tribe seems to be referring to land it controls outside the boundaries of the reservation. In recent years the tribe has acquired hundreds of acres of formerly privately owned land, including the 217-acre Swinomish Golf Links it bought for $1.1 million in 2013, and the 2014 tax lien purchase of about 430 acres of the never developed “Mona Lisa Estates” land that lies within the reservation boundaries. In the last several months the tribe has also purchased the Shell gas station on Christianson Road across from Swinomish Golf Links and the Bayside Fitness property across Highway 20 from the reservation. None of the land the tribe has purchased has been taken off the county tax rolls – the tribe will pay more than $21,000 in property taxes on just the golf course this year. Even the land it purchased within the reservation boundaries is still taxed. Parcels come off the tax rolls when the federal government takes ownership of the property and holds it in trust for the tribes, a process that can take years. That’s how the land under the Great Wolf Lodge water park in Thurston County became tax exempt after the Chehalis Tribe bought it. In the September issue of the Qyuuqs newsletter, three pages are devoted to the sovereignty initiative and explained, “our current Constitution and By-laws undermine our status as a sovereign nation by requiring the BIA approve too many of our actions and decisions that we make as a tribe. This approval process is referred to as Secretarial Approval.” An example given in the June newsletter stated: “The tribe has wanted to pass a law protecting the reservation’s supply of water but the BIA will not approve it due to its national policy prohibiting tribes from enacting such laws.” Like La Conner, Swinomish purchases water from the City of Anacortes, which treats and distributes water from the Skagit River. Should the Bureau of Indian Affairs allow the election to amend its tribal constitution, Swinomish members will be asked to vote to remove the requirement for “secretarial review and approval of all tribal actions.” The move would also create a tribal court system, and ensure, “that our territory includes not just the land, but also the water flowing through out lands, the air above, the minerals below” and “provide that the tribe has sovereign authority over that territory.” The Swinomish government’s affairs are not open to the public. As with private corporations, the meetings of their governing body are closed and there is no public disclosure required on their finances. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is under the U.S. Department of the Interior, and, in theory, as a federal government agency it is answerable to the public.