The United States Supreme Court ruled Tuesday Mar. 22 that a Nebraska tribe's reservation boundaries were not "diminished" by non-tribal settlement. The case may have implications for an ongoing dispute between the Wind River Indian Reservation tribes, the City of Riverton and the state of Wyoming. (Envios / Flickr Creative Commons)

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision Tuesday the significance of which is likely to be debated in the ongoing dispute between the Wind River Indian Reservation tribes and the state of Wyoming regarding EPA’s decision to allow the tribes a voice in air quality decisions in central Wyoming.

In Nebraska, a tribe that had asserted jurisdiction for liquor law purposes over a nearby town, on original reservation lands then settled by outsiders, won a key ruling from the SCOTUS Tuesday. The court decision said that Congress didn’t legally “diminish” the reservation and its boundaries when it opened that reservation for settlement. Whether the WRIR was “diminished” by being opened up to settlement that established the town of Riverton is a key issue in the air-quality case.

In the Nebraska case, while the court unanimously ruled that the reservation in question had not been “diminished” and still had its original boundaries, the decision sent the case back to the lower court to decide whether a century or more of tribal failure to assert jurisdiction over all the original territory may invalidate the new liquor law.

According to the EPA, its December 2013 decision to give the WRIR tribes “Treatment as a State” on air quality issues will allow the WRIR tribes to receive more grants under the Clean Air Act, and get notifications of air permits that may affect their airshed. It will also allow the tribes to participate in air quality commissions and the development of risk-management plans. The EPA decision stressed that TAS does not give the tribes regulatory authority.

The Wyoming attorney general’s office, and the city of Riverton, have raised concerns that if the EPA decision on reservation boundaries is upheld, the tribes could assert jurisdiction over a wide variety of issues. The state is challenging the EPA decision in the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Opinions at the tribal offices and the Wyoming attorney general’s offices are likely to differ dramatically on the significance of the new high court decision, Nebraska v. Parker in their dispute.

Here are links to the Supreme Court opinion, and to two different descriptions of the ruling.

Additional WyoFile coverage:

Arapaho Promote Mediation in Wind River Reservation Border Dispute

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  1. The SCOTUS unanimous decision made clear that the 1882 act of congress that opened up Indian lands to settlement did not clear the way for continued diminishment for said lands. If there was one viable argument that Riverton was established on tribal diminished lands the EPA would have excluded Riverton. Trust me, the EPA, the state and feds are not on the tribes side.

  2. A great book from which to consider these issues is Robert Meister’s “After Evil”–a moral philosophy that considers deeply questions of justice given America’s history of the violent conquest of Indigenous people and theenslavement of Africans and African Americans. Meister is one of America’s gifted intellectuals, trained in finance, law, and moral philosophy. He asks what it would mean to be Americans who could figure out, together, what “justice in time” would mean. That is, we know how to recognize the injustice of the past, such as the creation and then whittling away of reservations, but we are stymied on imagining what it would mean to configure justice now in light of the past. Instead of fighting the ruling, Wyoming could be the state that thought deeply about justice in time. We were the place of last resort, the place where the Ft Laramie treaty of 1851 and the place where the Laramie Peace Council of 1888 transpired. What might 2016 and beyond look like if we sought out justice in time.

  3. I wonder how the city of Riverton would react to the city limits being changed without a voice, or the State of Wyoming boundaries being changed by a treaty? Placing people within a boundary develops rules, and these rules usually have a voice. The American Government placed these people within boundaries without rules, or a voice. I would have to say this judgement was based on the rules our Government made, and now we should listen to our rules.