Mending Fences panel said solving fear and trust issues led to agreement in Michigan boundary dispute

(Riverton, Wyo.) – A “mending fences” panel discussion sponsored by the Northern Arapaho Tribe this morning at Central Wyoming College was held before a standing room only audience this morning that was comprised roughly 50/50 between reservation and non reservation residents.

The current boundary dispute between the Tribe, the State of Wyoming and local governments over a Federal Environmental Protection Agency ruling was the catalyst for today’s session. Four years ago in Michigan a similar dispute over reservation boundaries was settled, out of court, by the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, the City of Mt. Pleasant, Isabella County and the State of Michigan. Officials from those entities sat on today’s panel to talk about how they resolved that issue.

After prolonged legal battles in state and federal courts, a judge ordered the parties into mediation rather that continuing litigation that was both expensive and divisive, said John Wrenett, the former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan.

Sharon  Tillman, the current mayor of Mt. Pleasant, said at first that “I thought their claim was outrageous and frightening. But I discovered that the tribe wasn’t interested about me, but about their tribal members and gaining justice for them,” she said. The original quarrel between the parties had to do with law enforcement actions in the patchwork of private, state and tribal lands in the area. The tribes complained that their members were being prosecuted in state courts, rather than in Tribal courts. Tillman noted that the area is served by five different law enforcement agencies.

Ron Nelson, a Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Council member said the original goal of the Tribe was “to protect our sovereignty and take care of our own people, who were being taxed by the state. Our goal was not to take over the city like everyone thought. We wanted to work with everybody, and we’re working well today,” he said, “We wanted to govern our own people and in the end it worked out.”

Tillman said the mediation “brought us together and forced us to look at issues, like law and code enforcement and a poor relationship,” she said. “It was the coming together, sitting down together, and at times it did get hot, but we found out both sides. No one was going to move so we had to work it out.”

Sean Neel, the Saginaw Chippewa’s legal counsel, said “no one thought it would be resolved, that it was an either/or proposition and that there was no room for compromise. But over a period of time, the issues evolved into interesting solutions. We talked about the fears, and the city was scared to death they would lose property tax revenues if the land was turned into trust land that could not be taxed and that would diminish their ability to provide health and safety services.” But Neel said the tribe was willing to talk about that and the boundary issue became secondary. “Both sides moved to the middle and tribes offered to make Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) to assuage those fears.” Neel said the trust that had been built up through the process led the parties to honestly articulate themselves.

Kathy Ling, the former mayor of Mt. Plesant and a city commissioner, said their situation was very similar to Riverton’s. “These are the same issues you are concerned about and you don’t know what it means right now in relation to law enforcement jurisdiction, zoning, revenue issues, code enforcement and such,” she said. “We thought there was no basis to reestablish original boundaries, but through this process we could see both sides.”The lawsuits ended and the Tribe and local governments are working together now, she said.

It was a full house at the Intertribal Education and Community Center Tuesday morning at CWC for a Mending Fences discussion.  (Ernie Over photo)

It was a full house at the Intertribal Education and Community Center Tuesday morning at CWC for a Mending Fences discussion. (Ernie Over photo)