Northern Arapaho dissolve Joint Business Council in bid for sovereignty
By Gregory Nickerson
September 10, 2014
The Northern Arapaho Business Council has withdrawn from the Shoshone and Arapaho Joint Business Council. The move dissolves a governance structure created by the federal government to deal with the two Tribes that share the Wind River Reservation.
Members of the Shoshone Business Council learned of the Northern Arapaho decision in a joint meeting on the evening of Tuesday September 9. Because of its sovereign nation status, the Northern Arapaho Tribe does not need approval from the Joint Business Council, the Eastern Shoshone, or the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to withdraw from the JBC.
“Our break with the Joint Business Council is important, but it should take no one by surprise,” said Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Darrell O’Neal.
The Northern Arapaho have taken steps for more independence going back 25 years or more. Starting in 1989, they moved their headquarters from the traditionally Shoshone town of Fort Washakie to Ethete. The Northern Arapaho Tribe opened its own housing office in 1996, and developed its own gaming laws separate from the Joint Business Council (JBC). The Eastern Shoshone also withdrew some authority of the Joint Business Council to make decisions for its tribal members during this time.
Co-chairman Ronald Oldman called the action, “a proud and historic moment for our Tribe.”
In a letter to their fellow tribal members, the Northern Arapaho Business Council described the change as, “a big step toward greater self-government and independence, something the Northern Arapaho Tribe has been working toward for many years.” They criticized the Joint Business Council for hobbling Northern Arapaho government, slowing down economic development, and wasting time and energy.
The Joint Business Council had its origins following a failed 1934 federal effort under the Indian Reorganization Act to consolidate the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho into a single tribal government. The two sovereign nations on the Wind River Reservation protested, and were able to maintain their status as independent governments.
Subsequently, the federal government, “continued to pressure the Tribes to meet in joint session, essentially because the federal officials found it more convenient,” according to the Northern Arapaho frequently asked questions (FAQ) guide on the topic.
Over time, the use of the Joint Business Council created the impression that it controlled the two Tribes’ decisions, instead of the other way around, the writers of the FAQ document stated. “The Joint Business Council is an unnecessary body created by and for the benefit of the federal government,” they claimed.
In their letter to tribal members, the Northern Arapaho leaders wrote that the Joint Business Council hampered their ability to defend their own interests: “Outsiders used the Joint Business Council against the Tribes. For example, some federal agencies used the Joint Business Council like the federal government used historic treaty councils to restrict the flow of information to tribal members, and use internal disagreements and other questionable methods to gain advantage over Tribes.”
Some examples of improper “advantage” cited by the Northern Arapaho Council members included questions of low rates for mineral leases that resulted in decades of litigation resulting in the claims check released earlier this year, delays in state approval for gaming, and consideration of a federal eagle take permit. They also noted that the JBC structure enabled the Eastern Shoshone to veto projects approved by the Northern Arapaho, or mislead federal officials into thinking that Eastern Shoshone members of the JBC could speak for both Tribes.
“Making a clean break from the Joint Business Council will help federal authorities better understand our governments and deal with them separately,” the Arapahoe FAQ document states.
The Northern Arapaho council members expect that the move will allow them to gain more direct access to state and federal leaders, including the Wyoming’s representation in Washington D.C. “Perhaps the congressional delegation will stop asking, ‘Where is the Joint Business Council?’ when Northern Arapaho request a meeting in private,” they wrote.
Going forward, the Tribes will handle joint business matters with the Eastern Shoshone through joint committees, but the issues will then be voted on in separate meetings held by each tribal council.
The situation has parallels to the sovereign status of the United States and England, which might work together on certain issues of common interest, but ultimately approve decisions in their own bodies of parliament and Congress.
Under the Joint Business Council model, a majority of members on each tribal council had to approve a motion for it to go forward. The dissolution simplifies the process by not requiring a quorum of both Tribes to be present for a meeting to occur, and reduces the potential for gridlock on decisions, the Northern Arapaho Tribal Council members argued.
The decision likely won’t affect the “Treatment as a State” (TAS) case under the Clean Air Act, because both Tribes signed on as separate parties. The EPA’s approval of a TAS agreement with the Tribes earlier this year sparked a lawsuit over whether Riverton is within the borders of the reservation.
The Eastern Shoshone Business Council and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead could not be reached to comment on this article by press time.
— Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @GregNickersonWY.
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