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Quiet Diplomacy

A little-known committee wields a new kind of power


Conventional wisdom holds that JFAC--the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee--is the most powerful panel under the rotunda.

The members of the JFAC and the wonks that sit and listen to its budgetary minutiae day-in and day-out like to think that.

But another joint committee is quietly plugging away und­er the radar, meeting once a month during the session and solving problems of international scope.

The Idaho Council on Indian Affairs is just an interim committee.

"It has no authority," said council co-chairman Sen. Michael Jorgenson, a North Idaho Republican. "It's the most unique committee in the entire Legislature."

Jorgenson is not exaggerating.

At the council's January meeting, tribal chairmen and chairwomen and their representatives from each of Idaho's five nations sat around the imposing Senate Caucus room table with four legislators, rehashing 150 years of history.

And reshaping future relations between the state and the tribes.

"The openness that everyone on the council shares with one another is really something that should be looked at as a starting point for other relationships and other committees in the Statehouse," said Quanah Spencer, Coeur d'Alene tribal spokesman.

This month, the council heard about plans for a statewide coordinator of Indian education, something the tribes have requested for years. Members discussed cross deputization of policing between tribes and counties, an arrangement that is working in Kootenai County. And committee members considered ways to salvage a substance-abuse mental-health program that is losing federal funding.

While other committees may drift into irrelevant or impertinent discussions, the council discussions often take place on two levels--the practicalities of committee work and the somewhat cryptic arena of oral tradition.

"What they have to do is put themselves in our position," said Lee Juan Tyler, vice chairman of the Fort Hall Business Council, the Shoshone-Bannock tribal government.

Tyler, who cites Robert's Rules of Order and talks about salmon as a homeland security issue, attempted to explain the concept of "mooya'ai" at the recent council meeting.

"We say mooya'ai, everything is equal," he said after several lawmakers declared a set of controversial murals in the Ada County Courthouse second-rate and historically inaccurate. One of the old murals in the courthouse--a building that lawmakers might convert into legislative offices--depicts a Native American with a noose around his neck.

Tyler's point: Don't judge a book like the old art by its cover (the Depression-era art) and don't whitewash our history for political expediency.

Jorgenson listened patiently to Tyler's history lesson, complimented his words and then stated that the council still needed to figure out what to do with the murals.

"We're past the point of rehashing history at every juncture," he said after the meeting.

Jorgenson, who has invested much time in gaining the tribe's trust and has an excellent rapport with council co-chair Chief Allan, Coeur d'Alene tribal chairman, said reviving the defunct committee over the past couple years was not easy.

"The evolution of the tribes has given rise to the committee being a functioning body," he said.

David Kerrick, an attorney who represents the Kootenai tribe and helped establish the council in 1999, said the idea was to get the tribes and the state to talk before they fight.

"You'd go talk to the governor, and you'd talk around, and people would say, 'There's no legislation directed at the tribes,' and then sometime halfway through the session, there'd be some bill that would come out of left field," Kerrick said.

The idea is that legislation addressing tribal issues pass through the council before it is assigned to a committee, so that sovereignty issues can be addressed, and all parties can start on the same page.

"You find in the germane committees that people will ask, 'Did you run this by Indian Affairs Council?'" Kerrick said. Of course, doing so is optional, and some legislators choose not to exercise the option.

"The Legislature is just beginning, in my opinion, to utilize the committee to its benefit," Jorgenson said. "I can tell you that there are still some old opinions about Indians" in the Legislature, he said.

The recent debate over the courthouse murals is an example of how Jorgenson wants the council to work. Senate leaders asked him to take the issue to the tribes and figure out what to do with the paintings.

Legislative members of the council began with the strong impression that the hanging scene was not historically accurate and therefore not worth preserving. They seemed to say that we, the state, never hung Indians.

The tribes wanted lawmakers to understand that, yes, the slaughter of Indians is part of Idaho's history whether they like it or not, and that there is little recognition of that in school curriculum or in the state's history institutions.

After a discussion and tour of the courthouse, Jorgenson said the council reached an agreement that the murals should be taken down and archived.

That's the way Jorgenson would like to see the state and the tribes work together.

Earlier this month, the council heard from a county sheriff and tribal police chief who are working together in Kootenai County to combat meth distribution on the reservation.

Sheriff's deputies in Kootenai County can enforce some laws on tribal members, and tribal police have some jurisdiction outside the reservation, according to the terms of a county-tribe agreement.

As an example, Chairman Allan said he got a ticket outside Coeur d'Alene last year.

Some of the tribes were considering a bill to make cross-deputization easier in Idaho, but instead, they will focus on state certification of tribal officers who complete police academy training.

The Idaho Sheriff's Association opposes this type of legislation, in part because tribal police have their own laws to enforce.

Kerrick said there is a racial element to the opposition as well, but it's mostly a territorial thing.

"Anytime that you give somebody a little franchise from the state, the person who owns the monopoly, well, that little monopoly becomes worth a little less when other people have it," Kerrick said.

Tyler said that meeting with the other tribes and the state is valuable to a certain extent. But in the end, each tribe has to decide how it is going to defend its own rights.

"We always get the short end of the stick," he said. "We're sticking to our treaty, which was prayed on with smoke in a pipe and ceremonies a long time ago."

You can reach Nathaniel Hoffman at 208-331-8371 or