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As part of Mainstreet Radio series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country,” MPR’s Tom Robertson reports on tribal sovereignty and the civil rights issues within reservation tribal courts.

Reports of civil rights violations on Minnesota's Indian reservations have been persistent for years. Indians have filed scores of complaints to state and federal agencies, saying they live under a system where political patronage and nepotism rule the day and tribal leaders can manipulate the legal system to benefit themselves and their supporters. The past few years have brought major reforms in tribal government, but there is still a lingering mistrust.

Today, many American Indians live in two worlds. Off the reservation they are guaranteed all the rights of a U.S. citizen. On the reservation, those federal rights disappear, replaced by the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, enforced by tribal governments. Many Indian people in Minnesota and the Dakotas say they've come to expect injustice both on and off the reservation.

This is part four of eight-part series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country."

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 2:

part 3:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:

part 8:


2001 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Radio - Large Market - Continuing Coverage category

2001 Minnesota AP Award, Best in Show - Radio Class III category

2001 PRNDI Award, second place in Division A - Series category

2002 RTNDA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / News Series category


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TOM ROBERTSON: The United States Constitution stops at the borders of Indian country. The US Supreme ruled more than 100 years ago that the document does not apply to Indians living on reservations. Legal rulings since then have established it's up to tribal governments to protect basic civil rights that non-indians take for granted.

If tribal governments abuse that responsibility, victims have few places to turn. The Red Lake Indian Reservation in Northern Minnesota has had a tribal court for more than a century. Chairman Bobby Whitefeather says the court does its best to protect the Civil Rights of band members. He admits that wasn't always the cas.

BOBBY WHITEFEATHER: Previously. dissension was something that was not well tolerated by the administration at that point in time.

TOM ROBERTSON: Whitefeather is referring to the 32 year reign of former Chairman Roger Jourdain, whose administration controlled a court that, according to a 1986 Star Tribune investigation, denied jury trials, jailed people for days without specifying charges, and denied prisoners the opportunity to post bail. In 1982, Jourdain and the tribal council effectively barred lawyers from tribal court unless they could speak the native language.

BOBBY WHITEFEATHER: I think the word fluently was also inserted in there, and even to this day, I don't know of any legally licensed attorney that possesses those qualifications. And so in a way that restricted access to loitering legal counsel.

TOM ROBERTSON: Whitefeather says, changes in the late 1980s led to a court system that is more responsive to the civil rights of band members. But former reservation resident Clara Niska says things are far from ideal. Niska is of Indian descent but is not from Red Lake. She moved there in the 1970s, and later married, Wub-E-Ke-Niew Wabi, a member of the band and one of the founders of the controversial American Indian Movement. Niska says she and her husband suffered years of persecution for their political beliefs, and when he died in 1997, she was abruptly and forcibly exiled.

CLARA NISKA: Kicked me out of my house a week after he died with the clothes on my back, pretty much.

TOM ROBERTSON: It happened in a Red Lake courtroom where niska was attending a probate hearing to settle her husband's estate. She says tribal police walked in with an order of exclusion signed by the chairman. She was escorted to the reservation border and told never to come back. She left behind her car, her home, and all of her belongings. She says her civil rights were never considered.

CLARA NISKA: There's times that I've stood on the line and looked across and yearned for the land that I may never see again. It's a cold-hearted thing to say you can't even visit your husband's grave.

TOM ROBERTSON: Chairman Whitefeather says his action. In the case was legal under tribal law and was justified to protect what he calls the tranquility of the reservation.

BOBBY WHITEFEATHER: She was removed because she was creating dissension amongst other people here. She was creating a problem. As a sovereign nation, we have the authority and the ability to establish the parameters of the rights of our people.

TOM ROBERTSON: Congress gave Indians most of the protections of the Bill of Rights in the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act. But 10 years later, the Supreme Court sharply limited the impact of that legislation, ruling that tribal sovereignty gives tribes authority over internal affairs, and tribes are increasingly using that sovereignty to broaden the scope of their courts.

ANITA FINEDAY: We're going to go on the record. This is White Earth Tribal court. My name is Anita Fineday. I'm the judge presiding here today.

TOM ROBERTSON: On the White Earth Indian Reservation in Northwestern Minnesota, Chief Judge Anita Fineday oversees a court that functions on a shoestring budget but owes its existence to the influx of casino profits. Just a few years ago, the court handled only hunting and fishing cases.

ANITA FINEDAY: Now its jurisdiction is greatly expanding. And I always feel like sovereignty is a matter of use it or lose it, and we need to set out the parameters of our jurisdiction and guard it very jealously.

TOM ROBERTSON: The court's caseload has doubled in the past year. It now handles misdemeanor traffic violations, child protection, and a variety of civil cases. Soon it will take on juvenile justice and domestic violence codes. Fineday says one of the more popular new services with Indians and non-Indians alike is a cheap divorce.

ANITA FINEDAY: I make the pitch. This is the only place in Minnesota you can get a divorce for $25 in one week. So [LAUGHS] we're seeing an influx of people if they both agree to submit themselves to the jurisdiction of the White Earth Tribal court, we can divorce anyone.

TOM ROBERTSON: But White Earth's court system is built against a dismal backdrop of repression and corruption. The 20-year regime of former Chairman Darrell "Chip" Wadena, which ended in 1996, included a host of abuses, political favoritism, embezzlement, fraud, and stolen elections. Judge Fineday admits there were civil rights abuses on a massive scale.

ANITA FINEDAY: The judge did what the tribal council wanted done, and if the tribal judge did something that the tribal council didn't like, they lost their job. If the tribal council didn't like you, you didn't get a job, you didn't get a house. The system was corrupt to its core.

TOM ROBERTSON: Trusting in a government with that kind of past is hard to do, says band member Ray Bellecourt. He believes there are no civil rights on his reservation and nowhere to turn for help.

RAY BELLECOURT: Well, when your rights are violated up there, you got one place to go to the people that are violating it, and they're not going to act on it. It's like asking the gorilla to get off your back. I mean, it's not going to happen.

TOM ROBERTSON: Some say the problem lies with the constitution of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, an organization that includes White Earth and five other Ojibwe bands. Critics, including White Earth Activist Marvin Manypenny, say the Constitution is flawed because it does not include a separation of powers. Manypenny says it gives tribal councils unbridled power.

MARVIN MANNYPENNY: You might as well have kingdoms, and a king making all the decisions for you. We demand participatory democracy.

TOM ROBERTSON: So far, reformists have had no luck in changing the constitution, but tribal leaders are working to insulate the courts from interference. At White Earth, Tribal Judge Anita Fineday says she can no longer be fired by the tribal council. Her judgeship for the first time in history will be up for election in 2002. Fineday says many Indians find the criminal justice system intimidating and unfair. She says White Earth's court provides more opportunity to be heard and is more sensitive to Indian culture.

ANITA FINEDAY: I think there's a great deal of bias in the state court system. I think that for anyone who is poor and who is a minority, it is difficult to receive justice in the state or the federal system. I think we provide better civil rights protections.

TOM ROBERTSON: Tribal officials agree the rapid growth of their judicial systems will play a key role in further promoting self-governance and political stability. Many also see the institutions as vital to protecting the Civil Rights of a people that historically have had none. I'm Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public radio, Bemidji.


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