Tribal sovereignty poses challenges for local law enforcementby Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
Recent reports of drug trafficking on the Red Lake Indian reservation have exposed a dilemma for tribes and local law enforcement -- sovereignty. Tribes are sovereign nations that run their own governments. For reservations such as Red Lake, sovereignty means they don't have to adhere to state laws or allow state or local police within its borders. Local police say as a result, reservations like Red Lake are becoming safe havens for drug crime. They say outside police departments have no authority on Red Lake, and the tribe doesn't have the money to hire enough tribal police.
St. Paul, Minn. — Red Lake Tribal Chairman Buck Jourdain acknowledges that the band has serious drug problems with cocaine and methamphetamine. Jourdain, who is also a drug counselor, says trafficking is taking its toll on the reservation.
He says the band depends on funding from the federal government, and right now money is scarce to hire enough tribal police.
"We do the best that we can with what we have. We're not a large gaming tribe, and we don't have a lot of resources here to put towards it. But the federal government definitely has a responsibility to the tribes," says Jourdain.
The relationship between tribal, state, and federal governments is complex and often mysterious. Tribes are sovereign nations, but they are also located within the United States. As a result, they must adhere to federal law. Some tribes allow some state interference on their land; Red Lake is not one of them.
As a result, state and county law enforcement from communities bordering Red Lake don't have jurisdiction to fight crime on the reservation.
Bemidji Police Chief Bruce Preece says in recent years, violent gangs that traffic large amounts of methamphetamine and cocaine have moved from the Twin Cities to north central Minnesota.
Because Red Lake is a "closed reservation," only tribal police or the FBI can investigate those crimes on the reservation. Preece says neighboring communities have formed a drug task force where police officers work on drug and gang crimes only. The problem, says Preece, is that Red Lake won't join.
"Drug trafficking and gang activity does not recognize borders. It's just that it's created so many issues for us," says Preece. "When we're trying to do our job, and when we're trying to work serious crime of gangs and drugs, it's almost impossible to do that."
Red Lake Chairman Buck Jourdain says the issue isn't that his band should relinquish some of its sovereignty. The issue is that the federal government should live up to its promises to adequately fund Indian tribes, so they can hire enough of their own tribal police.
Kevin Gover, law professor at Arizona State University, is a member of the Pawnee tribe and a former assistant secretary of the Bureau of Interior for Indian Affairs. Gover agrees with Jourdain.
Gover points to one federal program that began in the late 1990s called COPS, which stands for Community Oriented Policing Services. It funded community police throughout the country, and Gover says it increased the number of tribal officers between 30 percent and 50 percent. He says that still does not put tribes on par with other local communities, but it was a step in the right direction.
Gover says the Justice Department began decreasing the program's funding during the last presidential administration.
"Indian Country law enforcement has always suffered from this problem that if the Indians are out there killing each other, that's not our greatest concern. It's sad to say and it sounds awful, but I'm convinced that it's true," says Gover. "And I know this from my time in Washington and trying to battle for more money, and just being turned away or given half a loaf from what we really needed to put cops on the street."
A spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department disagrees. He said COPS funding decreased because the program met its goal of 100,000 new officers.
Meanwhile, Red Lake's Buck Jourdain says the tribe has a good working relationship with the surrounding communities and with the FBI. He says the tribe won't relinquish any of its sovereignty because it's just too important.
- Morning Edition, 03/10/2006, 7:50 a.m.