Tribes shorted on federal funds due to joint-powers structure


RIVERTON — The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes have missed out on multiple federal funding opportunities because of the cooperative government structure imposed upon them by the federal government, state and tribal officials said this month. 

Both tribes have been “forced to work together to govern a single reservation and its resources” since the 19th century, when the federal government required that they share the Wind River Indian Reservation, according to a 2015 article in the Wyoming Law Review. 

Later, the U.S. Indian Bureau –– now the Bureau of Indian Affairs –– “pressed for establishment of a joint business council” on the Wind River Indian Reservation, according to the Wyoming State Historical Society. 

“Officials in the (Bureau) steadily pushed all tribes to move away from their consensus-based traditions of leadership toward forms of majority-rule, representative government more like ones white people used,” the WSHS said. 

Now, Eastern Shoshone Business Council Chair John St. Clair said the tribes’ cooperative governing agency –– the Wind River Inter-Tribal Council – isn’t eligible for federal coronavirus aid because it doesn’t employ enough people.

“The tribes are eligible, with their employment numbers, but not our joint group,” he told the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations during a meeting last week in Riverton. “So we don’t get anything to fund our joint government out of this structure.” 

Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, called it a “great irony.” 

“You’re forced to have a joint arrangement … and yet it’s not recognized by the same government that forces you to do that,” he said. “There are no (coronavirus) funds available for those programs because they’re not under an individual tribe. That’s a problem.” 

St. Clair noted that his tribe tried to address the issue by claiming half of the WRITC employees as Eastern Shoshone staff, but federal officials wouldn’t allow it. 

“The answer we got was, ‘Well, you have to have 51 percent (of the employees) –– just beyond half,’” he said. “We couldn’t get it beyond one half.” 

Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said he “hadn’t contemplated the need for the joint employees as well,” telling St. Clair “your point is valid” and “we’d like to support that effort.” 

St. Clair said tribal officials already have reached out to the state for support but “haven’t heard back,” so “Our next step might be to consult with our delegation in Washington and try to push this issue forward.” 

Case said the committee could send letters to Wyoming’s congressional representatives, too – and anyone else the tribes recommend – and St. Clair offered to supply a copy of the letter the tribes sent to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last month about the problem. 

“That’s a starting point perhaps,” St. Clair said. “I think what we should do is develop some kind of a form letter for you to send in.” 

The form letter would include a list of “other instances where there’s been denial of recognition of the joint government and denial of benefits that are available,” St. Clair said, explaining that the coronavirus funding issue is “just one example” of the problem. 

ESBC Councilman Michael Ute referred to the WRITC situation as a “conundrum,” explaining that the inter-tribal council was created to operate as a joint powers board — not a third government entity. 

But the federal government funds the WRITC like a separate government, and from that perspective, Ute said it’s “really not fair” that tribal governments have to use their own federal funding to support the inter-tribal organization. 

Ryan Ortiz, chief financial officer for the Northern Arapaho Tribe, encouraged the elected officials to work on developing a system through which the federal government adequately funds the WRITC “so that it’s not taking away from each tribe’s single interest as well.”