Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal men speak in opposition to Lake County policing laws

By: - March 24, 2023 7:09 pm

The Montana State Capitol in Helena on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Two men who said they were members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes spoke Friday in opposition to two bills aiming to shift financial responsibility of overseeing felony offenses in the Flathead Reservation to the state.

“Lake County has used PL-280 as a means of abusing the system to create a situation of abuse and oppression against the CSKT tribal membership that is based on land specifically set aside for the exclusive use and benefit of the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille,” said Ethan Friedlander, one of the opponents.

The CSKT have largely had no comment on Public Law 280 thus far, and a spokesperson for the tribe confirmed Friday the tribe officially still has no comment.

Montana authorized overseeing criminal jurisdiction in the Flathead Reservation in 1963 under Public Law 280, which passed a decade prior in Congress. The law allowed for the transfer of criminal jurisdiction to states where reservations are located. The Flathead Reservation is the only reservation in Montana under PL 280, with the majority population residing in Lake County.

Misdemeanor offenses have been overseen by the CSKT since 1994.

The state is solely responsible for overseeing felonies there now, and Lake County said that because the state itself doesn’t have the infrastructure and has not supplied funding, the county was forced to help — and incur costs.

Two bills heard in House Appropriations on Friday aim to reimburse Lake County for incurred costs for operating law enforcement on the reservation and ensure the state will adequately fund PL 280 moving forward.

House Bill 478, sponsored by Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, would appropriate $42 million to Lake County. Senate Bill 127, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, creates a mechanism by which if the state and county don’t agree to the amount of funds needed for law enforcement, the state would take over jurisdiction.

Friedlander advocated for self-sufficiency on the reservation and letting the tribe run all of the policing.

“Let my tribe alleviate this problem for you. Let self-determination efforts take effect, (and let) the tribal court, treatment court and peer support specialists do their work,” he said.

Lex Pierre, CSKT, said the impact of checkerboarding, or non-Native land ownership on tribal land, and state fee lands on the reservation are the “root cause of PL-280 and the issues we are dealing with today.”

Hertz said the Flathead reservation is one-third tribal and two-thirds non-tribal.

Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, asked if Pierre wanted to restore complete jurisdictional boundaries on the reservation, to which Pierre said yes.

Stewart-Peregoy asked Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker if he was aware of the tribe’s position on the bills, to which he said it hasn’t been clear as of yet. Decker did point to the vote by Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, in favor of Hertz’s bill on the Senate floor earlier this month.

Read said CSKT Chairman Tom McDonald told him privately that he doesn’t want to see PL 280 go away.

“He’s a classmate of mine. I used to date his sister,” Read said, laughing that maybe he shouldn’t have said that in public.

He said the relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and the Tribe is cohesive and they determine on the scene who has jurisdiction, but the state needed to pay reparations for their past expenses and there needed to be an agreement for future expenses. Lake County Sheriff Donald Bell testified in committee that he is a tribal member.

Hertz said the opponents should take their concerns to the Tribal council.

“If the vast majority of tribal members on the reservation want to get out of Public Law 280, they can,” Hertz said. “The tribes had that ability since 1993. They can ask to withdraw from public law 280. They have not. I think that’s an indication that the tribal council agrees that they want to continue with this agreement.”

Hertz said without PL 280, the federal government steps in, and when arrests happen, tribal members may end up in federal jail — not on the reservation.

“If you end up in federal prison, you’re out of the state of Montana.Tribal members cannot visit their families very easily when they’re out of the state of Montana,” he said.

He said in his closing on the bill that he’d like to talk with the two opponents about the benefits of PL-280.

Freidlander said he wants reparations for the time he did for a nonviolent offense. He said he and Pierre are leaders in the community and hundreds would follow them.

“If anybody deserves reparations, it’s the tribal membership on the Flathead Indian Reservation,” he said.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.