In a move long sought by the Yakama Nation, federal officials Monday approved returning authority to the tribe for certain civil and criminal cases involving tribal members that have been handled by the state for decades.
“It is truly a great day for the Yakama people,” said Tribal Council Chairman JoDe Goudy in a statement. “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.”
The move was also praised as a victory for tribal sovereignty by the head of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which granted the tribe’s petition for retrocession.
However, Yakima County officials remain concerned that the petition was approved before law enforcement protocols had been worked out for the 1.1 million-acre reservation that both tribal members and nonmembers call home.
Retrocession — which removes state jurisdiction over tribal members only in certain cases and does not give the tribe any new jurisdiction over nonmembers — will affect cases such as car crashes, domestic violence calls and truancy complaints.
Major crime by tribal members has traditionally been handled by federal authorities, typically the FBI; that is not changing.
But it’s still unclear how tribal and county law enforcement officers are going to make sure each case gets into the right jurisdiction, and a lack of communication could lead to dire consequences, said Yakima County Prosecutor Joe Brusic.
“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 said. “I am concerned that we have not formally sat down with the tribal council since about 2013.”
Goudy did not respond to interview requests Monday afternoon.
Brusic said he’s most concerned about traffic crimes, such as DUIs.
Under retrocession, if a sheriff’s deputy pulls over a tribal member suspected of driving under the influence, the deputy would have to call tribal police to make the arrest, Brusic said. But if the suspect gets the impression that the deputy can’t arrest him and drives off and hits someone, who’s liable for the tragedy?
“If we don’t have the jurisdiction, that could happen. That’s why I really do want to stress that we want to help and sort through this,” he said.
The head of the BIA praised the county’s support for retrocession and acknowledged the concerns in his Monday letter to the Yakama Nation announcing that his agency was approving the tribe’s petition for retrocession. But Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn said that while the agency could facilitate meetings, it is not requiring such agreements before the retrocession takes full effect in April.
“It would constitute extreme hubris for a federal official more than 2,500 miles away in Washington, D.C., to attempt to resolve disputes between neighbors in the Yakima Valley,” Washburn wrote. “We expect cooperation to be forthcoming.”
In addition to changes for law enforcement officers, retrocession will change which courts try some cases. For example, Yakima County Superior Court hears most vehicular homicide cases, even those involving only tribal members, but now it’s unclear whether the tribal court or the federal court would handle those cases, Brusic said.
Representatives for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane declined to comment, but Washburn wrote that U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby in Spokane has been closely involved in the process of approving the retrocession.
The BIA did adopt a suggestion from Ormsby’s office not to make the retrocession effective until April to give all parties involved more time to make a smooth transition.
“I’m very pleased they are giving us a six-month implementation period of time, which we must use,” Brusic said. “From the letter, it seems like (the BIA) believes we’ve been engaging in robust implementation, but we haven’t had much communication since the proclamation was signed.”
The retrocession was approved at the state level in January 2014 when Gov. Jay Inslee signed a proclamation that returned to the Yakama Nation authority over school attendance, domestic relations, mental illness (with the exception of civil commitment of sexually violent predators), juvenile delinquency, adoption, public assistance, and motor vehicle operation for tribal members on tribal lands. However, the measure still required approval from the federal government in order to take effect.
The transition has been in the works since 2012, when the Yakamas became the first tribe to seek the return of the legal jurisdictions the state claimed in 1963, using the retrocession process created by a 2011 state law.
According to Washburn’s letter, federal assessments found that the Yakama Nation is prepared to handle the increased responsibilities of retrocession.
The tribe has hired 10 new police officers in recent years and the BIA provided $149,000 to the Yakama Tribal Court to purchase equipment, hire a court administrator and provide additional training, Washburn wrote.
His letter also eased the concerns of Klickitat County officials who were worried that the Nation could use the retrocession process to re-assert claims to a long-disputed area along the reservation’s southern border, including the community of Glenwood. Prosecuting Attorney David Quesnel said they were pleased to read that no boundary changes were involved.
Yakima County Commissioner Kevin Bouchey said the county has always supported the retrocession process, albeit with concerns about how law enforcement officers will manage the upcoming transitions.
“We’re not surprised by the decision; we were just hoping that some of the operation protocols would be laid in place beforehand,” Bouchey said. “Time will tell how all this works.”