RIVERTON — Pickups and the odd tanker-truck pound along Federal Boulevard on the way out of Riverton. The road carries them south over the Big Wind River toward Lander, 30 minutes away.
Despite living literally a stone’s throw from the Wind River Indian Reservation, for many non-Indians in Riverton, the drive to Lander is the only time they enter the reservation.
According to Wind River Hotel and Casino CEO Jim Conrad, the reluctance to cross south of the river and onto the reservation stems from discomfort. The casino is along the road from Riverton to Lander.
“They’re afraid,” Conrad said.
Afraid of crime. Afraid they won’t be welcome. Afraid of cultural barriers.
White residents of the town and nearby farms have long taken comfort in the geographic barrier offered by the Wind River delineating tribal land from the state of Wyoming.
“The city of Riverton is not on the reservation,” is how Mayor Lars Baker puts it.
But he knows that statement is as imprecise as the meandering route of the river, which runs from north of Dubois in an arcing “U” through the reservation to Shoshoni. Baker acknowledges the city is surrounded by the reservation — or at least that it’s difficult to get out of town without crossing the reservation.
But “technically, see, technically,” Baker says, Riverton isn’t part of Indian Country.
The mayor has good reason to believe Riverton, despite its placement within the original boundaries of the Wind River reservation, is not on the reservation: For over a century, Wyoming has treated much of the land north of the Wind River as belonging to the state.
When an enrolled Northern Arapaho or Eastern Shoshone member applies for a driver’s license in Fremont County, the form asks them whether they live north or south of the river. Those living north are subject to state taxes from which reservation residents are exempt.
But all that may be about to change.
In the spring of 1904 an Indian Inspector named James McLaughlin traveled to the Wind River Indian Reservation. When the federal government wanted to make a change to the reservation, they sent McLaughlin, and he had been there before: in 1891 and 1893.
This time he went at the behest of U.S. House Rep. Frank Mondell of Wyoming, who wanted to open a wide swath of the reservation — that area north of the Wind River — to homesteading and mining.
Mondell introduced a bill in Congress, and McLaughlin was sent to see if the tribes would amend their treaty and open part of their land to private settlement.
There was precedent for selling reservation land to the federal government. In 1874 and again in 1897 the tribes had agreed to sell reservation land outright. The federal government paid the Shoshone and Arapaho a negotiated price, and the two tribes relinquished sovereignty over the areas.
But the deal McLaughlin presented in 1904, to which the tribes agreed, was different. Instead of a single lump-sum payment, the federal government would facilitate the sale of plots north of the Wind River to homesteaders: If the allotments were purchased, the money would be passed along to the tribes.
Plots that weren’t purchased would return to tribal control.
Sale of the allotments was cut short in 1913 after less than 9 percent of the land had been turned over to private hands.
Whether the 1904 deal with McLaughlin, approved by Congress the following year, meant the Wind River tribes relinquished sovereignty over reservation land north of the river is still an open question.
Any day now the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver is expected to determine the boundary of the reservation after 112 years of uncertainty.
The case pits the state of Wyoming against the Shoshone, Arapaho and federal government.
It started in 2008 when the Shoshone and Arapaho jointly requested “Treatment as a State” from the Environmental Protection Agency. Approval would qualify the tribes for federal funding, like that offered to states, to monitor air quality on the reservation.
It is a relatively standard request from Indian nations around the United States. Even Baker, the Riverton mayor, said it made sense that the tribes wanted funding for a single reservation entity to monitor environmental quality in the area.
Baker used to work for Fremont County Weed and Pest and described the complexity of monitoring irrigation ditches.
“My crew goes from private land to Indian-owned land to trust land to jointly owned land,” Baker recalled. “You do that every 50 feet. If you have to write a separate work order for each of those parcels — the administrative headache would be overwhelming.”
But the application posed a question: If the tribes were to be approved for Treatment as a State, what would the border of that state be?
The EPA asked the Department of the Interior what the borders of the reservation were, and after reviewing legal precedent Interior attorney Hilary Tompkins said that the 1905 transaction didn’t change the original reservation borders.
Jason Baldes of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center said that decision is what set people off.
“The state of Wyoming, city of Riverton and adjacent areas kind of blew the whole situation out of proportion because of its implications as to what could be deemed Indian Country,” Baldes said.
What he means is that the state of Wyoming and Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation sued the EPA.
“[T]he EPA’s determination that the Disputed Area is within the reservation significantly burdens the administration of state and local governments over an area that has retained a predominantly non-Indian character for over 100 years,” Gina Cannan and Steven Lechner, lawyers for the farm federation, argued in documents filed with the 10th Circuit.
There is no disputing that Riverton is strikingly different from towns on the reservation. With about 11,000 people — around 12 percent are Indian — Riverton is the largest town within the reservation’s footprint. There are strip malls, a Wal-Mart and an older downtown as is common in small cities across the West.
By contrast, Ethete and Fort Washakie, where the tribal headquarters are based, are composed of small clusters of civic buildings and one gas station each.
But Baldes said that no matter where the reservation boundary lies, the tribes have no interest in changing the lives of non-Indians in Riverton or elsewhere.
“It’s not in the best interest of the tribes to remove anybody or change their day-to-day lives,” Baldes said.
He said any changes would center on environmental regulations — a notable if limited impact in a region where agriculture and energy dominate the economy. Disputed land holdings might also be affected, but the city and county governments would continue to operate largely as they have been.
Tribal members living in Riverton would become subject to the reservation legal code, but Riverton mayor Baker said that wouldn’t make a big difference.
Baker said he worked as a police officer in Polson, Montana, on the Flat River Indian Reservation. Tribal members could refuse to recognize Baker’s authority under Montana law, but the town found an easy loophole: Baker and his colleagues were given jurisdiction on the reservation as federal agents.
“All you had to do is say, ‘I’m a special officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs ... so give me your driver’s license,’” Baker said with a laugh.
While Riverton joined the lawsuit against the EPA, Baker said even if the city loses the case, things won’t change much. Baker said the city already navigates county, state and federal regulations.
“We’re already involved in all these layers,” Baker said. “It’s just another layer.”
But no matter what Baker thinks, the question of where tribes have sovereignty will resonate far beyond Fremont County. Ten states from Idaho to Alabama filed briefs supporting Wyoming.
Mountain States Legal Foundation, a prominent conservative public-interest law firm, is representing the farm bureau.
In other words, the case is a big deal. If land that Indian nations agreed to let the federal government sell to non-Indians is still subject to tribal sovereignty, that could have far-reaching implications around the country.
“States fail, or don’t like, to recognize tribal authority and sovereignty when it comes to disputes on land and resources,” Baldes said.
In a similar case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last spring that a non-Indian town in Nebraska remained within the boundaries of the Omaha Indian Reservation. Baldes hopes — and many other legal watchers expect — that the 10th Circuit will follow the Supreme Court’s lead and find that Riverton, too, has not escaped the bounds of the reservation.
Arguments in the case concluded in March, and a ruling out of Denver is expected at any time. Whatever the outcome, Baldes said the boundary question is one that desperately needs to be resolved.
“The county and the state have been taking and taking from the reservation and chipping away at the sovereign status of the tribes ever since the reservation was established,” Baldes said. “This is an issue that needs to be resolved.”