Proposal to extend tribal jurisdiction raises boundary issue

By Timberly Ross
Omaha, Nebraska (AP) 2-08

Some Thurston County residents are worried that proposed legislation that would give the Omaha Tribe greater legal jurisdiction could cause even more confusion about the tribe’s boundaries and whether it has authority over non-Indians.

“Legislators should be focusing now on clarifying the boundaries, and where the reservation is and where the tribe and federal government have jurisdiction, rather than expanding what is already unclear,” said Teri Lamplot, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors.

She and about 75 constituents met during February to discuss the measure (LR234) from Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha. Stemming from a request by the Omaha Tribe, the proposal would expand the tribe’s jurisdiction over most crimes to include all crimes and civil matters within the reservation’s exterior boundaries.

The measure does not define those boundaries, and their exact location is at the heart of several disputes between the tribe and its non-Indian neighbors. Chambers said the measure would apply to current reservation boundaries.

A hearing on the resolution was scheduled before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee during mid-February. A group of Thurston County residents was planning to charter a bus to Lincoln to attend.

Jurisdiction over criminal and civil matters on the state’s three Indian reservations was given to the state by the federal government in 1953.

In 1969, the U.S. government returned criminal jurisdiction – with the exception of crimes involving vehicles on public roads – to the Omaha Tribe after the state approved the action. It returned jurisdiction over all crimes to the Winnebago Reservation in 1986 and the Santee Sioux in 2006.

Chambers’ measure cited the Omaha Tribe’s court system and criminal code as evidence that it could responsibly handle increased jurisdiction.

But Lamplot said the tribe’s law enforcement has not been effective, and there remains confusion over who – the tribe, the state or the federal government – has authority over crimes and where.

A message left for tribal chairman Ansley Griffin was not immediately returned.

Chambers’ resolution says the current situation “has created confusion for federal, state and tribal law enforcement officers because the Omaha Indian Reservation overlaps with multiple counties,” alluding to the tribe’s claim that its reservation boundaries still extend beyond Thurston.

“The purpose of this resolution is not to overturn or settle any boundary disputes ... it would bring an end to the so-called confusion by establishing clear lines of law enforcement authority,” Chambers said.

Lamplot said she and others in the county are concerned that they weren’t consulted about the resolution, particularly because the wording indicates they would be subject to tribal law enforcement and its court system.

“It’s not about race,” she said. “It’s about your basic rights as a state citizen.”

Sen. Kent Rogert of Tekamah, who represents Thurston County, said several hundred people have contacted him about the proposed resolution, which he had no part in drafting.

“It’s created a little excitement in my office,” said Rogert, adding that he also has several concerns about the measure. Most worrisome, he said, is that the proposal does not define where the reservation’s boundaries are.

In an 1854 treaty, the United States defined the reservation as stretching from the west bank of the Missouri River across the portion of northeast Nebraska that later became part of Thurston, Cuming, Burt and Wayne counties and Iowa’s Monona County.

In the 1860s, part of the Omaha Tribe’s northern land was ceded to the Winnebago Tribe, and over time, some of the remaining Omaha land came to be owned by non-American Indians, resulting in a “checkerboard” pattern of land ownership that has caused confusion about tribal lines.

Associated Press reporter Nate Jenkins in Lincoln contributed to this story.