Safety and Sovereignty

By Kellyn Brown

When you consider the history of oppression against Native Americans, it’s understandable that they would resist any attempt to weaken their sovereignty on tribal lands. Why give up more than they already have?

On the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, conservationists and National Park Service officials have expressed concerns about oil and gas development near Glacier National Park’s eastern border. But with the jobless rate extraordinarily high there, those concerns have largely been ignored.

“This is our land, these are our minerals, and we will develop them the way we want,” Grinnell Day Chief, the tribe’s oil and gas mineral director, told the Associated Press earlier this year.

He was responding to a report that Anschutz Exploration Corp. would stop drilling next to Glacier. Company officials said it had failed to find enough oil and gas to warrant further exploration, but there was some speculation that it had also succumbed to external pressure from critics protesting the drilling.

Nonetheless, Day Chief said the tribe would begin negotiating with other firms about taking over the leases. And despite whether federal agencies approve, that’s the tribe’s right. That’s their land.

But tribal sovereignty appears to be muddled in the strange case of Tribal Councilman and Democratic Sen. Shannon Augare, who a Glacier County sheriff’s deputy pulled over last month after responding to a report of an erratic driver on U.S. Highway 2 about nine miles west of Cut Bank and within the reservation’s boundaries. Augare looked impaired and smelled like alcohol, according to police reports. But when the deputy attempted to take his keys, Augare told him he had no jurisdiction to make an arrest and drove away. And it appears that was within his right.

The deputy did not pursue the state senator, saying he wanted to avoid a high-speed chase, and instead contacted Blackfeet Law Enforcement Services. But based on the agency’s track record, the chances of Augare being cited for drunken driving appear slim. Perhaps Augare wasn’t drunk, he was simply exercising his sovereignty. Nonetheless, there must be a better way to prosecute drunken drivers on the state’s seven reservations, where, according to the Montana Department of Transportation, 67 percent of fatal crashes involving Native Americans are related to drunken driving.

In fact, there is. Two tribes, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Indian Reservation, have an agreement that allows any area law enforcement officer to ticket anyone pulled over on the reservation. And it appears to work fine. Members of the tribe still appear in tribal court and non-members in county courts.

“I think all reservations are particular in their own way, but this system works for us,” CSKT tribal police Capt. Louis Fiddler told the Associated Press, which has covered this issue extensively since the Augare incident.

This is a matter of safety, not sovereignty. Since five of the state’s reservations don’t report drunken-driving convictions to the state, there is no way to keep track of them. Authorities don’t know how many previous DUIs a driver has or whether they require treatment or incarceration.

And in a strange twist, late last year Augare’s brother Shawn had two drunken driving convictions expunged from his record by a tribal judge who said they should have never been turned over to the state. That same judge can be removed by the Blackfeet Tribe’s Law and Order Committee, of which Shannon Augare is a member.

As a legislator, Augare also served on the Law and Justice Committee in 2010 that studied ways to crack down on drunken driving. On the state’s reservations, it appears a helpful first step would be to allow law enforcement to share jurisdiction in some cases, including suspected drunken driving.