Trust issues with tribes need to be worked out

Idaho State Journal Editorial

Idaho Indians recently met with Gov. Otter to encourage him to create a cabinet post dedicated to improving state relations with the tribes.

Shoshone-Bannock leaders were part of the meeting, which resulted in no promises from the governor that such a position would be established any time soon.

The timing of the tribes’ request was bad, though it’s clear the state’s relations with the Native Americans who call Idaho home could be much better.

The Gem State is trapped in the same recession that’s gripping the rest of the nation. Otter and other state officials are clearly struggling to get Idaho through the worst economy since the Great Depression without cutting state agencies and funding to shreds.

The tribes need to understand that current economic conditions make the creation of a full-time state-level Indian affairs position unlikely.

But the point made by the tribal leaders to Otter should not be disregarded. The tribes are part of the fabric of our state and their contribution should not be taken for granted.

Coeur d’Alene Tribe Chairman Chief Allan put it best: “Tribal economies in Idaho generate at least a half billion dollars annually, provide thousands of jobs, and pay millions of dollars in Idaho tax revenues that flows into state coffers. It only seems fair for tribes to have a place within Gov. Otter’s administration.”

Allan told the Associated Press that at least 34 states have similar positions. In Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer has a cabinet Indian affairs adviser; the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs keeps Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire abreast of matters involving 29 tribes, according to the AP.

In recent years, Idaho and its tribes have argued over water, taxes on reservation gasoline and murals in a state building showing an Indian’s lynching.

Members of the local Shoshone-Bannock tribes know first-hand that Indian relations with the state can be tense.

In 2005, the AP reported, Shoshone-Bannock leaders kicked off the reservation non-tribal teens accused of stealing $58,000 in silver, rather than seeking help from neighboring counties to prosecute the crimes, out of concern over protecting the tribe’s right to govern itself.

Otter spokesman Mark Warbis told the AP that the Dec. 22 meeting with tribal leaders was “a listening session.” He said the governor “wanted to hear where the tribes are, what their priorities are, and to continue to let them know his door is open.”

Although the Indians’ cabinet post suggestion was obviously rejected, they should continue to voice their concerns about how Idaho’s run and push for reforms that will result in better relations between the reservations and Boise.

There’s a perception among many Native Americans that Idaho’s government cannot be trusted.

That’s a problem that needs attention now from our governor and state officials, regardless of whether an Indian affairs position is ever created.