Native-Americans Protest Treaty Rights Infringements in North Okanogan County

Earlier this week many local Native-American tribes protested the Federal government policies restricting their rights to cross the Canadian border. The problem had been brewing for some time. See High Country News.

When I first moved to Ferry County in 1996, it seemed as if this was the county that was poised to enter big legal battles with the Colville Confederated Tribes.  The two governments were set to square off over who had primary jurisdiction to regulate land owned by non-Tribal members on the Reservation.  The subject dominated local politics and was the subject of frequent letters to the editor.  The Tribes were rumored to have a “million dollar war chest” to fund any litigation with the county.  The county commissioners appointed me county attorney in April 1998, and I urged caution on the part of the county. When you are looking for a good “test case” to bring to court, you don’t necessarily want to join the side of the first non-Tribal landowner to raise his hand.  In the end, a legal battle was avoided, and in my opinion Ferry County and the Tribes have worked together fairly well for the last ten years.

So I am glad to see that it was the Federal government this time that has drawn the ire of the Colville Tribes and has been accused of violating treaty rights.  This has come to the media’s attention rather recently as Tribal members have become fed up with being harassed by U.S. Border officials as they travel to and from their ancestral homelands across the border in British Columbia.  As someone who lives near the border myself, I have often found it frustrating to deal with border officials when I travel to Canada.  In addition, as an attorney I often represent defendants who get caught up in border issues.  The difference, of course, is that local Tribal members have special treaty rights to cross the border.  Under the Jay Treaty of 1794, Native-Americans were granted the right to engage in trade and travel between the United States and Canada, which was then British Territory.  Until 9/11 no one seemed to question the rights of Tribal members to travel to and from Canada with just their tribal ID cards.  But now, there is pressure on the Tribal members to give up the ID cards of their own government and to use passports or state enhanced drivers licenses. Local tribes are now considering issuing their own passports.

This controversy boiled over on June 1st as local Native Americans and Tribal members from Canada staged a protest in the border town of Night Hawk.  The protest was peaceful, but the Omak-Chronicle reported that it involved the removal of a border fence.  The Border Patrol did not try to intervene as the Tribal members crossed the border and back again.  I have to hand it to these protesters.  It took courage to take that step. I would have half expected the Feds to arrest some of them.  But I guess then it would have become a national story, rather than just a regional story.  I hope the Tribes pursue their rights in this respect.  Often it is the local governments or the States that are accused of violating treaty rights,  the Tribes are right to stand up to the Federal government too.  The Tribes in the U.S. sometimes seem to be the favorite underdog of the federal judiciary.  I can easily see the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals approving the rights of Tribal members to set up their own border check point.  However, unlike 10 years ago, when the Colville Confederated Tribes had money set aside for litigation, the Tribes now are suffering a budget crisis.  This border issue is something that I will try to follow closely.

What do you think?  What will come of this issue?  Is it fair to ask Native Americans to use State ID cards when they enjoy rights to sovereignty?

One Response to “Native-Americans Protest Treaty Rights Infringements in North Okanogan County”

  • silxwakn - sinixt nation:

    i have used the border crossing for as far back as i can remember. now i use it even more because i and my wife are attempting to raise our young sons okanagan, with the language being a top priority. my wife and our children are enrolled tribal members of the osoyoos indian band in oliver, bc, i am enrolled arrow lakes with the colville tribes.
    i and my little family were at the crossing demistration. the words spoken from from both sides were just political people talking, because i still am harassed and forced to show more than my colville indian card on the canada side. canada side does not accept the colville tribal blue card as proper id, they say it does not prove citizenship. although i have crossed the border a few hundred times in the last (3) or (4) years. the politians are not the ones who must deal with these issues, so they really do not know what kind of hassles we go through.
    I have full blooded relative all up into the okanagan valley. from oliver to spahman, williams lake, vernon. these are the same relatives my grand parents brought me to visit when i was young. canada can not see what inhuman thing they are doing when they do not allow us to visit family, attend funurals and other tradtional ceremonies in our home lands.
    i could go on and on, but what good does it do?

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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