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Who’s the boss? 

Tensions spark in Benewah County over who can enforce the law on Indian land

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Once again, a dispute between Idaho’s Benewah County and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has flared into the headlines over who has the authority to do what to whom.

Children are known to express this as, “You’re not the boss of me!” The tribe has introduced a bill into the state Legislature to create a process where sheriffs in counties with Indian reservations can explore making agreements with tribal police forces to jointly enforce state laws.

Some sheriffs already have similar arrangements, including Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson. And Benewah County had a cross-deputization agreement with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe until it blew up three years ago.

What’s the difference? In Benewah County, many non-tribal residents own what once was Coeur d’Alene tribal land, and the complications of sovereignty — who is the boss of who — cuts closer to the bone. Tensions grew in 2001 the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the tribe ownership of the bed and banks of the lower third of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

Later, the tribe later posted notices that dock owners would pay their annual fees to the tribe instead of the state of Idaho, and tensions wound tighter. Disputes also arose over garbage collection, jail fees and emergency dispatch in recent years.

“There’s been a sort of resistance to any efforts the tribe has made, especially when it comes to cooperative efforts,” says Helo Hancock, legislative director for the tribe.

Another factor is that younger, more aggressive tribal leadership is ruffling feathers around the county, says newspaper publisher Dan Hammes, a longtime observer from St. Maries. He adds that locals also chafe under the perception that regional media portrays county residents as having “protruding foreheads and dragging knuckles.”

Last week, The Inlander hit the road to listen to several people who have a perspective on the conflict.

TWO SIDES OF A STORY

Dan Hammes has spent 30 years cranking out the weekly newspaper, the St. Maries Gazette Record, and closely observing his community along the way.

His downtown office has a wall full of photographs of his children and grandchildren and a desk that is a hallmark to hard-working journalism — piled high with documents, notes and other newspapers.

“Sitting here, watching the disagreements between the tribe and non-tribal folks, you can trace it right to the Supreme Court ruling and then the dock fees,” he says. “The tribe — and it seems to me they are right in this — says, ‘You have to rent from us just like you used to rent from the state.’ “The land owner says, ‘Just a minute, I paid taxes. I’ve got a title and a deed. I own this and you have no authority on this land.’”

The crux, he says, comes down to “power and influence.” As the Coeur d’Alene Tribe continues to assert its role in the region, “People see people being treated differently on the basis of race. You don’t pay the tax, I pay the tax,” he says. “When you live side-by-side … it’s going to ruffle feathers.”

Tensions and suspicions are not eased, Hammes says, when much regional reporting portrays the tribe’s efforts as noble and the locals’ as reactionary.

“If I fight Potlatch Corporation, I’m a hero.

If I fight the tribe, which is also a corporation, somehow that’s nefarious. Oh, those knuckledraggers, here they are again. You see? And both sides are doing what they were elected to do: the tribal council to represent tribal members and the county to represent people who are mostly not tribal members.”

Chief Allan, the mostly new (four-plus years) and mostly young (at 38) chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, says Hammes is right when it comes to a more assertive approach by the tribe.

“Even when the boom of the casino was at its highest, the tribe did not wield its power. I still don’t think we wield our power because we try to get along with the surrounding communities,” Allan says. “But I do want people to recognize us as a major player in the economy.”

But, Allan adds, the tribe still holds the same priorities and values of being a good neighbor that were held by previous leaders such as Ernie Stensgar. Same priorities, with a different level of patience or experience, perhaps.

Allan says he is mystified why Benewah County is the only entity that has difficulty working with the tribe. “The funny thing is we are one of the biggest taxpayers in the county,” Allan says. The tribe is paying $125,468 in Benewah County property taxes this year.

“It’s not about being a boogie monster or trying to be a bully, we are trying to do our part,” Allan says.

The tribe provides hundreds of jobs through its medical clinic, casino and other enterprises. It shares money with surrounding school districts, including the St. Maries schools after a brief rift.

It hurts, Allan says, when some county residents write letters to the Legislature that they are scared to drive through the reservation if tribal police have any authority over non-tribal members.

“A lot of people see us as a bully, and it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s time to settle down and look at facts — we don’t want to violate anyone’s Constitutional rights.”

SOVEREIGNTY, SCHMOVEREIGNTY

ormer Tribal Police chief Tom Cronin is retired now, so he can be blunt.

The failure of Benewah County and the Tribal Police to work together is up at the leadership level and is more basic than tension over sovereignty or games of political chicken between the tribal council and the county commissioners.

“A lot of it is a personality clash between Chief [Keith] Hutcheson and Sheriff [Robert] Kirts,” Cronin says. “My understanding is at one of their first meetings, Hutcheson felt Kirts didn’t show him enough respect as chief. That’s how it started, and it went downhill from there.”

Simple. Ugly, but simple. “We keep looking for root causes, that it has to be something complicated, and really it’s something simple. I think egos have gotten in the way,” Cronin says.

When he was hired by the tribe, Cronin sought out the sheriffs of both Kootenai and Benewah counties to ask what was needed to create joint-policing agreements.

Cronin, with funding from the Tribal Council, began upgrading tribal police equipment and training, sending all his officers to the POST (Police Officers Standards and Training) academy run by the Idaho State Police.

“Every single guy in the police department was POST-trained and then we cross-deputized with both Benewah and Kootenai counties,” he says. “When I left, there was an agreement. I worked on that, and it took two years.”

Cronin says both he and Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson (Hutcheson’s previous boss) have been asked by tribal leadership if they would intercede, but have had no success resolving the dispute.

Cronin says he is peeved that the agreement with Benewah County has broken down and that nobody seems to be working to repair the rift.

“This is not difficult,” says Cronin, who is encouraged that the rift seems confined to leadership. “When this started going downhill, one of the tribal officers stopped by my house and wanted to talk. I asked what the relationship among the street officers [both county and tribe] was like.”

He says this is what the officer told him: “If somebody calls for help, we’re coming as fast as we can. We don’t care how f---ed up the bosses are.”

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