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January 19, 2020

5/10/2017 9:03:00 AM
County, Tesoro, seek federal assurance on tribal jurisdiction
Sandy Stokes

Skagit County’s Board of Commissioners and the Tesoro refinery’s company headquarters in Texas both sent letters to the federal government in bids to shield private property from tribal expansion.
The county’s letter mailed Thursday was to affirm on record a response from the Bureau of Indian Affairs which stated that the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community cannot expand its boundaries without action by the United States Congress and that its jurisdiction off reservation is limited to tribal members exercising their hunting and fishing rights.
Tesoro’s Executive Vice President of Operations, Cynthia Warner, wrote directly to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke asking that an election by Swinomish tribal members to consider changes to the tribe’s own constitution be postponed. Alternatively, Warner asked that should the May 23 tribal election proceed, the federal government disapprove amendments to the tribe’s constitution concerning an expansion of its reservation or its jurisdiction that would be contrary to law. Also, she asked that the Interior Department fully address the concerns raised by “stakeholders” in the county.
At issue for the county is a proposed amendment to the Swinomish constitution that states the tribe will have jurisdiction “over all persons, subjects, property and activities occurring within … the Tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing grounds and stations and all open and unclaimed lands…”
County officials believe that phrase could be interpreted to mean the tribe wants jurisdiction over the entire Skagit Valley and everyone in it. “Given SITC’s history of aggressive litigation over the course of the past two decades against Skagit County and others in our community, we feel justifiably concerned by the extreme ambiguity inherent in” the proposed amendment, the county’s letter stated.
To make sure the county is on record accepting the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ response that the jurisdiction extends only to tribal members hunting and fishing, the county stated that it is relying on the BIA’s explanation as “an accurate and complete reflection of the United States’ publicly-communicated interpretation,” of the tribe’s proposed constitutional amendment.
And if that’s true, the County Commissioners will be satisfied.
For Tesoro, the issue is not quite settled. Besides the jurisdiction issue, the company, which operates one of the two refineries on March’s Point, the long-held assertion by Swinomish that March’s Point and Summit Park and a strip of the city of Anacortes are part of its original reservation is still worrisome.
“We, like others in Skagit County, have had to rely on the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information and we have yet to obtain much if not most of the information that we need. This lack of transparency in a federal process is unusual and has contributed to the alarm over what the amendments might mean to landowners,” Tesoro’s Warner wrote in her letter.
The Swinomish Reservation’s northern boundary was set by President Ulysses Grant in 1873 and shows March’s Point is not part of the reservation. For years Swinomish, has disputed the validity of Grant’s executive order, and an early draft of its proposed constitution appeared to establish its claim to the land, which includes the refinery.
While the Swinomish leadership has not backed away from its claim that its reservation should be larger, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has told the tribe that it cannot assert that claim in its proposed constitution.
The letters are on the county’s website, www.skagitcounty.net.

Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2017
Article comment by: LARRY JENSEN

It would seem to me that it would be unfair to change the boarders of the reservation either to expand or contract the reservation.

The land has for a very long time been occupied by persons who believe that they have ownership and to change that should be through the act of a willing buyer and a willing seller through a sale. I confess this does not address the issue of changing non tribal land to tribal land. This issue seems to have already been decided back in 1873. I say leave things the way they are now and have been since 1873.

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