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Debate focuses on sovereignty

Gover says tribes, states should work together to improve living conditions

Kevin Gover, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs director, discussed the overlapping of tribal and state authority with Tom Gede, a state law official during a debate Monday at the UNM Continuing Education Center.

The debate, emceed by Margot Adler, host of National Public Radio’s “Justice Talking,” was taped for future broadcast. A crowd of about 200 showed up for discussion, which will air in November. KUNM 89.9-FM, sponsored the event with the UNM School of Law.

The two discussed how states and reservations could work together toward improving living conditions on tribal lands without overstepping the boundaries of sovereignty.

Gover said tribes need to better their communities.

“I don’t think that anyone would seriously argue that the condition of Indian people in this country at this time is better than it was prior to the arrival of the Europeans,” he said.

He added that if the federal government is going to hold the tribes responsible for improvement, then the tribes need the authority to meet that responsibility.

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Gede, the executive director of the Western Attorneys General, said states and tribes are constantly butting heads because states have civil and criminal laws that need to be enforced because they too are sovereign.

“What is on the reservation is still in the state,” he said.

Non-American Indians who are involved in an accident or crime on reservations are under state or federal law, not tribal law, said Gloria Valencia-Weber, after the debate. She is a law professor and director of the Indian Law certificate program at the UNM School of Law.

Gede stressed that state and tribal governments need to argue less about who has jurisdiction and should engage in dialogue to accomplish goals.

Gover added that they could work together to create social services and other programs.

“If tribes and states agree, then jurisdiction isn’t important,” he said.

At one point, Gede asked Gover what tribal sovereignty is supposed to protect when tribes increasingly rely on non-American Indians for economic development.

He said that American Indians also are becoming subject to mainstream culture, such as hip-hop, Ricky Martin, McDonalds and the Internet.

Gover said tribal sovereignty isn’t based on protecting culture.

“I think people do that themselves,” he said.

He said it is a way for tribal communities to be able to make decisions about economic development and governance.

During a question and answer period, a New Mexico native, who is not American Indian, called federal money given to tribes for healthcare and other expenses “handouts” — causing groans from the audience.

Gover said American Indians do not get enough money for the land that they lost.

“Indians are looking for no more than their rightful inheritance,” he said.

Gover advocated a limit to federal recognition of American Indian tribes as sovereign but stressed that people would have to be aware of the cap so they wouldn’t get left out of the application process.

About 561 American Indian tribes are federally recognized as sovereign, Valencia-Weber said.

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