January 17, 2014 was a big day for the Yakama Nation tribe.
On that day, Washington governor Jay Inslee signed a proclamation returning almost all civil and criminal authorities over to tribal members on the eastern Washington reservation. The next step is federal approval before the proclamation can take effect.
“The biggest benefit is that we have the right to determine our own destiny and our own laws,” said Tribal Council Chairman Harry Smiskin to the Yakima Herald Republic.
The Yakama Nation has long been living without this right. The move to restore authority is a historic event—the first of its kind in the country.
Under a treaty signed with the federal government back in 1855, the Yakama Nation is a sovereign nation. This means it has the right to govern itself.
However, in 1953 U.S. Public Law 83-280 was introduced. According to a report from the Washington State Senate Committee Services, the public law aimed to give states more authority over the Native American tribe lands. In 1963, the state gained the power to exercise more control over matters of school attendance, public assistance, dependant children, domestic issues, adoption proceedings, and operation of motor vehicles on streets, roads and highways on Native American land and reservation property.
This was also referred to as the PL 280 jurisdiction that gave Washington state full authority over nine Native American tribes and partial control over 12, the report said.
As people started playing with the idea of retrocession—the process of regaining lost rights and privileges—tribes formally applied to governor Christine Gregoire in 2012 for a return of authority to Native American tribes.
At the time, the Yakama Nation tribe proposed that the state have authority in matters regarding mental illness and assault convictions. Except for these instances, matters would be handled by tribal leaders.
The proclamation signed on Friday similarly maintains that the state will have jurisdiction over civil or criminal cases involving people outside of the tribe’s community, but other authority will be settled within the tribe.
Post-proclamation, however, a lot will have to be done, according to Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin.
“They have some steps left,” Irwin said. “In the meantime, it’s business as usual and we are working together very well.”
The Yakama Nation has already signed memorandums of understanding with various cities and counties, but how major criminal cases will be handled by the Yakama Nation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs is something that will be worked through and tested in the coming months.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs will be working to review this proclamation before it can go into full effect.
Smiskin also told the Yakima Herald Republic that he foresees obtaining federal approval may take up to a year, after which budgets and finances will need to be analyzed and finalized to help support civil authorities over issues of child and family support, school systems, and more.
To many, Inslee signing the proclamation was a cause for celebration and buses of supporters from the Yakama Nation tribe went to Olympia for the event.
Smiskin said that he urged his tribesmen to pursue the action of the appeal of retrocession as he had seen it work wonders for a different tribes back in the 1980s. How effective it is for the Yakama Nation is a question that will find its answers in the future.