5/31/2017 9:57:00 AM Swinomish constitution amendments approved
Swinomish Indian Tribal Community members approved the 29 proposed amendments to the tribal constitution, last week. While tribal elections are private and generally do not stir controversy outside the reservation community, provisions pertaining to territory and jurisdiction in the amended constitution have inspired a flood of letters to the U.S. Department of Interior, which has until July to approve the document. County officials, landowners, the agricultural community and taxpayers worried about what appears to be a move to extend the tribe’s jurisdiction beyond its reservation boundaries have written letters to the federal agency. Now a farming advocacy group is asking the public to also write letters opposing the amendments. One of the amendments, defining the tribe’s territory, gives Swinomish sovereign power over “all lands, water, property, airspace, surface rights, subsurface rights, and other natural resources (a) in which the Tribe now or in the future has any interest, or (b) which are owned now or in the future by the United States for the exclusive or non-exclusive benefit of the Tribe or for individual tribal members…” And it defines the tribe’s jurisdiction to cover “all persons, subjects, property and activities occurring within (a) it’s territory as defined by this Article; and (b) the Tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing grounds and stations and all open and unclaimed lands, as guaranteed by treaty for fishing, hunting and gathering, and on such other lands and waters as necessary for access to such fishing, hunting and gathering areas.” A press release distributed by attorney Marty Loesch, who was a tribal attorney for Swinomish for 10 years before he served as former Governor Christine Gregoire’s chief of staff, quotes Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby saying, “Amending a tribal constitution cannot and will not allow for a tribe to expand its reservation boundaries…” However, Cladoosby’s reference to boundaries did not ease all fears concerning the tribe’s claim to jurisdiction. On several occasions, Skagit County officials have asked the tribe to say definitively whether Swinomish intends to assert civil jurisdiction over most of the county and its residents. The tribe never responded to the county’s queries. A letter the county received from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in early May indicated that the Swinomish off-reservation jurisdiction applies only to tribal members. But Skagit Family Farmers points out in a plea to the public to get involved, there is nothing in the tribe’s constitutional amendment that states it applies only to tribal members. The concern is that if the Department of the Interior, which is over the Bureau of Indian Affairs, should approve the constitution as written, farmers, landowners, dike districts and other entities could be at disadvantage should Swinomish decide to take them to court. Skagit Family Farmers is an affiliate of Save Family Farming, an advocacy group formed last year to respond to the “What’s Upstream?” advertising and lobbying campaign managed by Swinomish with federal money. The campaign called on legislators to require 100-foot buffers between salmon streams and farmland – something farmers argue would take thousands of acres of farmland out of food production. Farmers in Skagit Valley suffered last summer when they were unable to obtain irrigation water due to a rule that was enacted after a judge ruled in favor of Swinomish on the theory that using water, even groundwater, reduces flows in the Skagit River, which impacts fish and treaty-protected tribal fishing rights. Gerald Baron, executive director of Save Family Farming, said diking districts in Skagit County, the County Commissioners, the Skagit Farm Bureau, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland and other groups “are all working together on this issue.” Skagit Family Farms mission is to spread the word through social media and on its website, skagitfamilyfarms.org, he said. “Our goal is to help people become aware of this,” Baron said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs resolved an earlier concern by county officials and many property owners as an early draft of the Swinomish Constitution amendments ap-peared to extend the reservation by thousands of acres to include March’s Point, Summit Park and part of the city of Anacortes. Swinomish contends that the area – which has two oil refineries, two car dealerships, many businesses and numerous private homes – was originally supposed to be included in its reservation and claims the northern boundary, set in an executive order by President Ulysses Grant in 1873 is invalid. But the federal government insisted that the reservation boundaries, as defined in 1873, must stand. The main thrust of the revisions to the Swinomish Constitution, which dates to 1934, is to ease the paternalistic role of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and give the tribal government more latitude in the operation of its day-to-day affairs without federal oversight. It is a move taken by other tribes in the U.S. and it is something the Bureau of Indian Affairs has encouraged to promote greater independence for tribal governments. Final approval of the constitutional amendments rests with the United States Department of the Interior. Secretary Ryan Zinke is hearing from Skagit County. Tesoro, which operates a refinery on March’s Point, the county and many other organizations and government agencies have sent him letters outlining their concerns.