Fed up with crimes on Tribal lands that go unpunished in state or federal courts, the Blackfeet Nation has resolved to challenge the legal authority that limits Tribal Court jurisdiction and punishments. Blackfeet Tribal Resolution No. 98-2009 calls on Montana’s Congressional Delegation to sponsor a bill to allow Tribes to remedy Oliphant v. Suquamish, 435 U.S. 191 (1978).
As previous articles on this site have discussed, the Oliphant decision and the Indian Civil Rights Act together limit Tribal Court jurisdiction over “non-Indians” and allow Tribal judges to impose only a maximum one-year prison sentence for any crime, no matter how violent or damaging to the Tribe. Currently, the sole authority to prosecute major felony crime lies with the federal government, yet from 1997 to 2006 federal prosecutors rejected nearly two-thirds of the reservation cases referred by FBI and BIA investigators.
This year Senator Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, introduced a draft for the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009. If enacted, the law would make incremental steps to an Oliphant remedy in the following areas: 1) Allowing Tribal Courts to impose up to 3 years in prison or a fine of up to $15,000 for major crimes; 2) Increasing funding for Tribal Courts and law enforcement departments; and 3) Creating a new Law and Order Commission to study issues of jurisdiction, investigation, and prosecution of reservation crimes and the impact on residents of Tribal land. The Commission would have two years from the enactment of the legislation to issue a report to Congress.