New Rockford Transcript - Official Newspaper of Eddy County since 1883

When change calls for collaboration


September 23, 2019

Back in early August, the “Transcript” published a story regarding a piece of legislation that would alter criminal jurisdiction on the Spirit Lake Reservation.

Known as S. 2159, the Spirit Lake Reservation Criminal Jurisdiction Retrocession Act will revert a 1946 law that gave the State of North Dakota jurisdiction over crimes committed by or against natives of the reservation.  

The legislation, will allow Spirit Lake Tribal Courts to prosecute natives who commit crimes on the reservation and also prohibit the State of North Dakota from exercising jurisdiction over crimes committed by or against Native Americans on the Spirit Lake Reservation.

With news of this legislation, community members have shared concerns about public safety, especially regarding potential gaps in law enforcement, gaps in jurisdiction, and challenges in coordinating responsibilities. Perhaps the most cited concern was that the reservation could become a haven for criminal activity.

Eddy County Sheriff Paul Lies has spoken out regarding the implications that might ensue, if legislation were to be passed. In a letter to Senator John Hoeven and Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Sheriff Lies shared his concerns. “My goal as Sheriff is to provide law enforcement to all of Eddy County, not just those areas off the reservation. My office has routinely received positive feedback from the rural residents who appreciate not being forgotten about and welcome the presence of my deputies in the rural areas of the county.”

Lies continued, “The Eddy County Sheriff’s Office has worked positively with the BIA in the past and will continue to foster positive relationships with the BIA and its officers. This proposed change would eliminate the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office’s ability to enforce any law on reservation land. Any residents living within Eddy County and on reservation land would have to call BIA for all their law enforcement needs. Eddy County would no longer have any jurisdiction on any reservation land and could not enforce any laws or take citizen complaints and investigate criminal activity. Simply put, I would oppose any changes to how we conduct business within Eddy County, my residents deserve and expect professional law enforcement throughout Eddy County borders.”

The Setting

The Spirit Lake Reservation consists of 495 square miles of land and, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, is home to 4,238 people. Of those living on reservation boundaries, approximately 650 have no tribal affiliation. Many of these individuals live on fee land within the reservation, and pay county taxes.

Sheriff Lies’ written response focuses on local law enforcement, and rides to assumption that non-natives living on the reservation will suffer due to gaps in jurisdiction. However, S. 2159 is just as much about court jurisdiction as it is law enforcement.

As sovereign entities, native nations are guaranteed the power and right to determine their form of government, define citizenship, make and enforce laws through their own police force and courts. Tribal courts are responsible for appointing guardians, determining competency, awarding child support, determining paternity, sanctioning adoptions, marriages and divorces, making presumptions of death, and adjudicating claims of trust assets.

Per the Spirit Lake Code of Law, the Tribal Court maintains jurisdiction over all tribal offenses and any native, whether they are a member of Spirit Lake Tribe, or any other federally recognized native. Maintaining criminal jurisdiction on the reservation has historically been aided by the federal services that Spirit Lake Tribe receives through the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services including direct law enforcement and detention.

Cooperative solutions

One question remains. How is law enforcement supposed to tend to jurisdictional hurdles and still serve and protect the people of the surrounding communities?

Nationwide, state and local law enforcement agencies have entered into collaborative agreements with tribal police. The terms of these agreements vary, but commonly address sovereignty, jurisdiction, geographic coverage, liability, arrests, citations, search warrants, incarceration, prosecution, sharing of information, personnel and equipment, emergency and nonemergency calls, and dispute resolution.

One example is that of the Hoopa Valley Tribe and Humboldt County in northern California. The tribe and county worked together to create a Joint Powers Agreement that established a series of public programs and activities. They deliver public service education, implement cross-deputization, participate in cultural diversity police training, cooperatively manage record-keeping, reporting, data collection and analysis, and ensure open lines of communication. Together they are able to do all this and patrol the reservation.

Hoopa Valley officers are cross-deputized and assist county officers with investigations, felony backup and prisoner transportation.

Unique scenario

When it comes to Spirit Lake and the surrounding counties, we have a local scenario will be inevitably different than any other case study. This is why it is essential to have healthy intergovernmental relations between federal, tribal, state and county entities.

The changes that will result if the legislation is passed through Congress are yet to be known and will take time to evolve. It’s likely that an adjustment period will be ahead. Still there is no reason that local and tribal entities can’t collaborate and anticipate how they can help each other reach their goals of protecting and serving the public.

In the meantime, we wait patiently as that little bill S. 2159 continues its wait in Congress. S. 2159 has been tabled since July 24 when the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs recommended it move to the Senate and House of Representatives.

While Congress returned to session Sept. 9 after a six-week recess, we have yet to know when this bill will have its turn on the floor.

You can check the status of S. 2159 on Perhaps now is a good as time as any to consider the impact that collaboration can have on the community.

Rachel Brazil is a writer and copy editor at the “New Rockford Transcript.” She holds a dual master’s degree from the University of Wyoming in American Studies and Natural Resource Management. She minored in American Indian Studies.


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