Supreme Court to Hear Arguments in Lewis v. Clarke

November 14, 2016

Next year the Supreme Court will rule on Lewis v. Clarke, a case that considers the limits of the legal immunity of tribes and their employees. The court will be asked to decide whether a tribal employee, in this case a limo driver, can be sued for an accident that occurred while the employee was on the clock, but outside Indian land.

The case. though narrowly confined to personal injury, could still have major implications for tribal sovereign immunity. The dispute began in 2011 when William Clarke, a limousine driver who works for the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, crashed into Brian and Michelle Lewis’s car in Norwalk, Connecticut. He was transporting patrons from the Mohegan Sun Casino at the time.

The Lewises initially filed a personal-injury lawsuit against both Clarke and the Mohegan tribe itself, but tribes have sovereign immunity. Generally speaking, this legal doctrine shields tribes and governments—as well as their employees when carrying out official business—from lawsuits unless those governments waive the immunity for themselves. The Lewises dropped their claim against the tribe and file one against Clarke. Clarke invoked sovereign immunity and the Connecticut Supreme Court agreed. You can read more about the case here.

11th Circuit Dismisses Age Discrimination Suit

October 24, 2016

Sovereign immunity protects Indian tribes from age discrimination lawsuits, the 11th Circuit ruled. In its ruling on Tuesday, a three-judge panel held a lower court properly dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former employee of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians accusing the tribe of discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

The suit, on appeal from the federal court in Mobile, Alabama, involved a longtime employee of the tribe’s health department who claimed she was fired without cause and replaced by a much younger woman. You can read the ruling here.

Park Service Report Criticizes Agency Culture

August 18, 2016


Marching Bear Mounds in Autumn. Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. (National Park Service)

The National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary amid criticism and scandal, as was highlighted recently in an internal agency report. Park Service officials, investigating the defilement of sacred- and ceremonial-grounds at the Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa, documented internal problems that go beyond the Effigy Mounds, including:

  • More than a decade of projects that did not follow federal preservation or environmental laws, including an extensive system of boardwalks meant to protect more than 200 American Indian sacred mounds. The mounds are 1,200 years old.
  • Staff’s lack of knowledge and skill in cultural resource management and preservation laws
  • A lack of accountability

NPS Midwest Regional Director Cam Sholly said the wrongdoing not only “violated the law and damaged resources” but also compromised “our valuable tribal relationships and the public trust.”

Read more about this here.

White House Announces Tribal Nations Conference

August 10, 2016

President Barack Obama meets with a group of tribal leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Nov. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

President Barack Obama meets with a group of tribal leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Nov. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

On Monday, September 26, President Obama will host the 2016 White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, DC. This will be the President’s eighth and final Tribal Nations Conference, providing tribal leaders from the 567 federally recognized tribes with the opportunity to interact directly with high-level federal government officials and members of the White House Council on Native American Affairs.

Each federally recognized tribe is invited to send one representative to the conference. This year’s conference will continue to build upon the President’s commitment to strengthen the government-to-government relationship with Indian Country and to improve the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Additional details about the conference will be released at a later date.

EPA Awards Additional Funds Related to Gold King Mine Spill

August 9, 2016

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on Friday it is awarding about $1.2 million in reimbursements to tribal, local and state agencies in the Four Corners region for costs associated with the response to the Gold King Mine spill. Over the last year the EPA has dedicated more than $29 million to respond to the incident with the majority of the funds dedicated to stabilizing the mine and reducing the acid mine drainage at the Gold King Mine site.

The announcement came on the one-year anniversary of the spill which occurred when EPA crews accidentally triggered the release of about 880,000 pounds of heavy metals into a tributary of the Animas River near Silverton, Colo., while cleaning up abandoned mining sites. 

According to the press release, the Navajo Nation will receive about $445,000 in reimbursements for costs associated with the response to the spill, including field evaluations, water quality sampling, laboratory work and personnel costs. The tribe previously was awarded about $158,000 by the EPA.

About $710,000 will be distributed to other state, tribal and local governments in Colorado and Utah, according to an EPA press release. Read the story in the Farmington Daily Times here.



NMAI Seeks Design Input for Native American Veterans Memorial

July 27, 2016

Native American soldiers have fought in every war since the American Revolution, up to and including the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now representatives from the National Museum of the American Indian are traveling across the country seeking input from tribes on a design for a memorial to honor them. They recently visited with tribes in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Representatives from the NMAI are on an 18-month tour of Indian Country gathering advice on a design for the National Native American Veterans Memorial, which was authorized by Congress in December 2013. It will stand on the grounds of the NMAI near the U.S. Capitol and like other recent memorials in Washington, D.C., it will be built entirely with private donations.


Yurok Salmon Festival Goes on Without the Salmon

July 25, 2016

Predicted salmon runs on the Klamath River are so low this year that for the first time in its 54-year history, the Yurok Tribe’s annual Klamath Salmon Festival on Aug. 20 will not be serving any salmon.

Yurok Tribal Chairman Thomas O’Rourke called it a “manmade catastrophe” and said there are not even enough salmon to feed Yurok families. O’Rourke and officials from other tribes along the Klamath River say federally regulated dams are to blame for the low salmon run. They say not enough water is being released leaving salmon susceptible to parasitic outbreaks. Read more about it here.

Lack of Health Services Puts Native Lives at Risk and Violates Treaties, Advocates Say

July 21, 2016

Colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer among Native Americans, behind lung cancer. Northern Plains Native Americans, for example, face an incidence of the illness 53 percent higher than non-Hispanic whites, and among Alaska Natives the incidence is 115 percent higher. Yet screening for this type of cancer is not typically covered by the underfunded Indian Health Service. 

“Congress would rather let Indians die than adequately fund the Indian Health Service,” Dr. Donald Warne told Newsweek. Werne, is a Native American and an advocate for better health services for Native communities. Some say that failing to provide adequate health care for Native Americans is a violation of the treaties the government signed with the tribes. Read more about this here.

National Labor Relations Act Applies to Tribal Casinos in the Sixth Circuit

July 18, 2016

Recently, two Michigan tribes petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) authority to regulate labor practices at their casinos. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review either the Little River Band’s or the Saginaw Chippewa’s petition, leaving the Sixth Circuit rulings that the NLRB has jurisdiction as binding precedent.

In both NLRB v. Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Tribal Government and Soaring Eagle Casino v. NLRB, the Sixth Circuit held that there is a presumption that federal laws generally apply equally to tribes on their reservation lands. However, a statute will not be applied to reservation lands if the law touches exclusive self-governance rights, if applying the law to the tribe would abrogate treaty rights, or if legislative history shows congressional intent to exclude tribes from the law’s application. The Sixth Circuit held that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) vests the NLRB with the fullest jurisdictional breadth constitutionally permissible under the Commerce Clause, and that enforcement of the Act in Indian country is not restricted by one of the exceptions to general applicability.

You can read more about the cases here.

To read an analysis of how the applicability of the NLRA to tribes has evolved over the past decade go here.


Panel Looks into Sentencing Reform in Indian Country

July 7, 2016

Are Native Americans living on reservations disproportionately dealt harsher punishments for crimes than other Americans? A federal panel is looking into this question.

Ralph Erickson. a chief federal district court judge for North Dakota. and an outspoken proponent of sentencing reforms for Native American reservations, is spearheading the federal review. Called the Tribal Issues Advisory Group, the panel is made up of 22 judges and law enforcement administrators, 11 of which are Native American.

“No matter how long I have been sentencing in Indian Country, I find it gut-wrenching when I am asked by a family member of a person I have sentenced why Indians are sentenced to longer sentences than white people who commit the same crime,” Erickson told the Wall Street Journal’s Dan Frosch. The Wall Street Journal interview is here.  A similar article published by Quartz is here.

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