Wyoming reservation’s redrawn borders put old conflicts back on map

When an EPA ruling put the town of Riverton within the lines of Wind River Reservation, racial lines re-emerged

Neither the EPA nor Wyoming monitors air quality over the 2.2 million acres of the Wind River Reservation. But a new EPA ruling giving the reservation the right to monitor air has brought up old disagreements.
Irina Zhorov for Al Jazeera America

RIVERTON, Wyo. — Look at a map of the pretty pocket of land in central Wyoming known as the Wind River Indian Reservation, and you’ll see towns strung like pearls on the lines of road that traverse the territory. At the southeast corner of the reservation lies Riverton. On the map, the town of 10,615 appears to be part of the shaded rectangle marking Indian Country, yet Wyoming has considered Riverton nontribal land for more than 100 years.

That may have to change. A technical ruling on air monitoring by the Environmental Protection Agency in December put the town in the reservation, an action that has awakened dormant racial tensions, inflamed an already uneasy relationship between Wind River and Riverton and raised questions about what the boundaries really mean.

The EPA’s main focus in the matter — air quality — has in many ways been relegated to the back burner.

“I don’t think anyone’s opposed to air quality,” said Ron Warpness, mayor of Riverton, who sees what he called “an ulterior motive” in the tribe’s request to the EPA: the “Natives would like to have their land back if at all possible.”

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead was more forceful, calling the EPA’s action “outrageous,” directing his attorney general to appeal.

The mood on the reservation was different, where residents welcomed the chance to expand air monitoring and the federal nod in their direction. Two tribes reside on Wind River, the Northern Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone.

“For us, to have our boundaries defined only really just gives back the land we already knew was there,” said Darwin St. Clair Jr. of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council.

Borders long in contention

Darwin St. Clair Jr. of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council said there have been many health issues because of air quality.
Irina Zhorov for Al Jazeera America

At issue is an EPA ruling that granted both the Arapaho and the Shoshone status as a state (or in federal bureaucratic lingo, “treatment as a state,” or TAS) under the Clean Air Act for the purpose of air monitoring. The TAS categorization allows tribes to monitor air quality and apply for grants for monitoring efforts but does not give them any regulatory authority.

The Wind River Reservation is made up of pristine mountain vistas and trickling streams. It’s also home to decades-old uranium contamination, which continues to pollute groundwater in parts of the reservation and which some residents believe has led to elevated cancer rates. Some of the streams are fed by wastewater from oil and gas fields. Energy development dots both the tribal land and the nontribal land upwind of the reservation. In their application for TAS, the tribes identified nine stationary sources of air pollution on the reservation.

Neither the EPA nor the state operates air-quality monitors on Wind River’s 2.2 million acres. An EPA grant funds one monitor run by the tribes. “There have been a lot of health issues coming up with our tribal members as well as with county people — cancer and asthma, bronchitis, a variety of things that are probably affected by the air,” St. Clair said.

But the borders of the reservation were in contention long before the EPA ruling.

An 1868 treaty established the Wind River Indian Reservation, 22 years before Wyoming became a state. Then in 1905, the United States opened up a portion of the reservation, including what is now Riverton, to white settlement. By doing so, state officials believe, Congress reduced the size of the reservation and permanently removed the acres in question from tribal control. Today Riverton largely functions like any other Wyoming town. The tribes, however, believe the act opened the land to white settlement without changing the borders of the reservation. 

The EPA sided with the tribes’ interpretation, concluding that Riverton sits on the reservation. But reservations are like sovereign countries, with their own governments, rules and agencies, and questions about jurisdiction beyond air monitoring instantly arose.

Questions and fears

In an editorial for a local paper, Mead wrote, “What happens with sales tax? What happens to state facilities and programs in the areas? What agencies are responsible for law enforcement? How are property rights affected?”

The concerns listed by Attorney General Peter Michael include potential outcomes ranging from the Wyoming Highway Patrol’s losing authority in the Riverton area to incarcerated tribal members’ challenging their sentences on jurisdictional grounds to Riverton food-service facilities’ operating without regulations.

“The designation of Indian Country carries with it so much more than is being portrayed by the EPA,” said Doug Thompson, chairman of commissioners for Fremont County, which includes Riverton and much of the reservation. “We believe it will subject a considerable number of citizens of Fremont County to a government that they have absolutely no say in and no recourse for abuse of regulation and power.” 

Criminal-jurisdiction issues in particular are alarming to the local government. The reservation has high crime rates — including violent crime — and limited law-enforcement muscle. What law enforcement exists isn’t always trusted. In the past, the state didn’t want to permit Wind River officers to issue traffic citations to nontribal drivers on the reservation, not to mention handling more serious offenses. People like Thompson also fear that non-Native Riverton residents could end up in tribal rather than municipal court, though that doesn’t happen now on undisputedly tribal land.

“Nobody knows how far this will go,” he said. “But it can go farther than anybody really wants it to go.”

The tribes insist they’re just after clean air. Still, St. Clair said, “the potential is there” to discuss other jurisdictional issues.

Matthew Fletcher, a law professor at Michigan State University and the director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center, thinks everyone is overreacting. Many tribes nationwide have TAS under one of the major environmental laws.

“This is an environmental decision, based on the Clean Air Act. It has nothing to do with sales tax. It has nothing to do with local regulation of day-to-day life,” he said. “Absolute zero.”

And if anything, said Fletcher, the path to resolution is negotiation, as Michigan did in a similar case with the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe.

Meanwhile, the EPA is unsure what its own decision means. The agency continues to talk to tribal, city and state representatives and is consulting the Justice and Interior departments. So far, the EPA has said only that the TAS “approval does not affect state or federal voting rights or citizenship or title to property,” concerns the agency also heard.

The state has filed a petition with the EPA asking for reconsideration and a stay of the decision and is preparing an appeal for the 10th Circuit Court.

Negotiate or litigate?

Downtown Riverton.
Irina Zhorov for Al Jazeera America

At The Trailhead restaurant in Riverton, Red Lobdell sat at the end of the counter as cooks called out orders through a small kitchen window. Lobdell runs a scrap-metal business four miles outside town on a property surrounded by tribal land on two sides.

“I’m rural. It might not affect me too much,” he said. “For the other people that live right in the city, I could see it to be a good excuse to leave and go somewhere else.”

Warpness has heard similar sentiments from other constituents. And he said he has received phone calls from tribal members claiming they no longer have to pay taxes and one message saying, according to Warpness, “We’re coming to take over Riverton.”

“It’s had a very chilling effect on the relationship” between the tribes and the residents who aren’t tribal members, he said. 

Commissioner Keja Whiteman said many in the county are uninformed about the EPA decision but are picking sides along racial lines. For Native Americans in the area, the debate is about more than just politics.

“The underlying issue is that while political favor is not with Native Americans, it’s still, I think, acceptable to, in a lot of circles, to be racist or prejudiced against Native people because there’s so much misunderstanding,” said Whiteman.

St. Clair thinks the governor’s comments were “fear-based propaganda,” and he was all the more disappointed because they came before anyone had a chance to sit down and discuss the decision. He said he “always thought when you want to talk about taxes, that’s something you negotiate … not litigate.”

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