By Raechel Dawson
WNPA Olympia News Bureau 

Tribal retrocession law awaits governor’s approval


Washington’s tribal communities earned autonomous recognition from the state Legislature on the final day of the session March 8 that, upon the governor’s approval, could become effective as early as June.

The bill that passed last week could cede back to tribes jurisdiction over civil and criminal matters involving tribal members in all areas, but control over sexually violent predators, so long as the governor and federal government officials agree on the requested “retrocession,” remain with the state.

The three-step procedure tribal communities face to ensure sovereignty include the submission of a “retrocession resolution” to the governor, approval by the governor with possible legislative recommendations, and final authorization from the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees tribal affairs at the federal level.

Chairman Harry Smiskin of the Yakama Nation’s tribal council said he and other members of council are very pleased the bill passed the Legislature.

Engrossed Substitute House Bill 2233, originally sponsored by Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, was amended by the Senate and approved by the House with a 59-38 vote last week.

Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, revised the bill with a striker that specifies the governor pay extra attention while granting retrocession from the operation of motor vehicles on public streets, alleys, roads and highways — an area over which the state currently has limited jurisdiction with 17 of the 29 federally-recognized tribes in Washington.

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Because tribal communities under state jurisdiction often involve city or county police enforcement, the bill encourages tribal communities to consult with cities or counties that are affected by the switch before submitting their resolution.

Upon receiving the tribe’s proposal the governor must meet with the tribe, but also consult with elected officials from the cities and counties affected, and discuss whether returning police enforcement of traffic-related violations to the tribes is appropriate.

Yakima County officials were major stakeholders in urging this consolidation between local governments and tribal councils.

Once the Department of Interior receives the governor’s approval, tribal leaders must then negotiate with federal government officials on their resolution.

Court proceedings or acts will not be affected if they started before the retrocession has taken place, according to the final bill report.

The act comes after a long history of turbulence between the federal government, state governments and tribal councils over who holds jurisdiction over Indians and Indian country.

Public Law 280, enacted by Congress in 1953, sparked the controversy when it stripped jurisdiction from tribal communities over their own people in six states — Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wisconsin — while allowing 10 other states the option of control.

Washington was one of the optional 10 that eventually retained civil and criminal jurisdiction over tribes in 1963.

While this control had to be per request of the tribes, eight areas of state-rule did not require tribal consent: compulsory school attendance, public assistance, domestic relations, mental illness, juvenile delinquency, adoption proceedings, dependent children and operation of motor vehicles on public streets, alleys, roads and highways.

“What’s going to happen now, is we’ve got to work on those eight points to get to the governor,” said Smiskin. “We have to do our resolution, which will request that [the governor] sign for full retrocession.”

Tribes have until June 7 to conclude their resolutions before the act is effective.


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