HB 83 sparks Ft. Washakie protest

From left, Yolanda Aragon Porter, Manuel Jarve, and Jola LeBeau hung a sign calling people to join in a protest over a bill at the Capitol that would allow state regulatory oversight for Indigenous hunting on unoccupied lands. The protest will be held today, Feb. 15, at 11 a.m. at the Fort Washakie Post Office. (Photo by Sarah Elmquist Squires)

By Sarah Elmquist Squires

Managing Editor

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 upheld Indigenous people’s rights to hunt on “unoccupied lands of the United States” in a high court battle over Native Tribes’ autonomy and Wyoming’s state authority. The Supreme Court ruled that unoccupied land, like the Bighorn National Forest, didn’t automatically become “occupied” when the national park was created — meaning Native hunters were not restricted by the state on those lands.

That ruling set a precedent for Indigenous rights for members to hunt on “unoccupied land” — mostly, lands adjacent to reservations that were taken from the tribes. And this legislative session, Wyoming state leaders are seeking to pass a bill about Native hunting authority that has sparked anger and hurt among local tribes. Eastern Shoshone Elders are organizing a protest on Wednesday and demanding a General Council meeting, both to object to the bill circulating the Capitol, and to question Eastern Shoshone leaders for being part of its creation.

“Today we want to bring awareness,” said Jola LeBeau, an organizer supporting action against the legislation she says not only harms relations between the tribes and state government, but erases protections made in tribal treaties from the 1800s. “We don’t like what [the state is] doing, and we are saying ‘no.’ … It should never have been negotiated with [the business council] in the first place. This is very important to all of us.”

Yolanda Aragon Porter and Jola LeBeau hung a poster advertising today’s protest at the Fort Washakie Post Office on Monday. ( Photo by Sarah Elmquist Squires)

The bill would allow the governor to negotiate with tribes “concerning a hunting, fishing, trapping or gathering right claim that is based on a treaty or other recognized federal right on lands located within the state.” The legislation had cleared the Wyoming House – with just one nay vote – and was headed for the Senate’s Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee just after press time. Its supporters say the legislation aims to compromise Indigenous hunting rights following the U.S. Supreme Court verdict in the Herrera v. Wyoming case. 

“This bill is [attempting to regulate] on our unoccupied lands of the 1863 and 1868 Fort Bridger Treaty,” LeBeau explained. “The state of Wyoming would like to control them for us — tell us the seasons we can hunt.”

Part of the consternation amongst Eastern Shoshone people is that, initially, they say, the Eastern Shoshone Business Council worked with state legislators on the bill for months without broader tribal members’ knowledge. Only more recently did the Eastern Shoshone Business Council withdraw its support for the legislation. The council issued a statement on February 3, directed to Governor Mark Gordon, which stated, in part: “ … the [Tribe] has reconsidered the proposed legislation regarding off-reservation hunting … After obtaining a legal opinion from our Tribal attorneys who are experts in Federal Indian Law and hearing concerns from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe who share the same treaty with us, we hereby withdraw that support and now oppose the bill … We now believe that the bill will jeopardize and compromise the rights of our Tribe and other tribes, if it becomes state law.” The letter cites statutes that would require the Tribe to agree to any law that allows prosecution of tribal members hunting without a valid state license. … “This would be difficult to agree to,” the Eastern Shoshone Business Council letter states.

In a letter objecting to the bill sent to legislative leaders, Diana Tillman Mitchell noted that in September 2019, a Shoshone General Council meeting was convened during which the council nominated three tribal members to serve on a “Hunting Off the WR Reservation Commission, to hunt on unoccupied lands, regarding the 1868 Treaty Article 4,” General Council Resolution No. 2019-11303. If the bill is passed without tribal members’ “input on the language of the bill, this act would be considered an act of dictatorship towards Indian people,” she wrote. 

Yolanda Aragon Porter, in an interview, shared that she had emailed U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead as a federal cabinet member, to tell her about Wyoming’s bill to curtail Indigenous rights on adjacent lands. Aragon Porter explained the situation.

“They haven’t been transparent to us,” Aragon Porter said of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council. “They are supposed to be the leaders.” She said she wished tribal leaders would have been more forthcoming about many things before this crucial point.

Aragon Porter, along with LeBeau and Elder Joe Washakie, were speaking at the Fort Washakie Post Office for this interview. Current Business Council member John Washakie walked by, presumably getting his mail. “We opposed it,” he said of HB 83 now bound for Wyoming’s Senate. When asked about the bill the Business Council had been part of that it now opposes, he demurred. “When it comes to the state of Wyoming,” he said, “they can pass any bill that they want to.”

Aragon Porter replied, “When the bill does come up, we should have representatives there to speak for the people,” she said. “If not, I hope that they will see that we oppose the bill.”

Of the protest on Feb. 15 (today), at 11 a.m., at the Fort Washakie Post Office, LeBeau shared: “We’re asking all people to come forward, not just our own people.” “You have to have courage, and you have to have beliefs – Your spiritual belief to do right and good in the world.,” Aragon Porter added of activism on the issue.

LeBeau pointed to her children, grandchildren, and the great-greats who will come after her. “I want to make sure that they have their lands,” she said. “I want to make sure they have the treaty intact, to protect and serve them — including our lands and natural resources. Take care of the natural resources and it will take care of us … We know that we hold that nature out there — We are that water, we are that sun … Those elders, those ancestors always said ‘Take care of the land.’”

Aragon Porter added, “Before, we lived free. Look around: it’s beautiful.”