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5:02 am
Wed March 5, 2014

Wind River Indian Reservation's Borders Are Disputed

Originally published on Thu March 6, 2014 2:44 pm

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In Wyoming, the borders of the Wind River Indian Reservation recently grew by about a million acres, thanks to a decision by the Environmental Protection Agency. Tribes on the reservation see the EPA's action as righting a historical wrong, but the state is fighting the move. Wyoming Public Radio's Irina Zhorov reports.

IRINA ZHOROV, BYLINE: The Environmental Protection Agency drew the borders of Wind River Reservation as part of a decision about air-quality monitoring there, but environmental concerns have fallen by the wayside. Instead, stakeholders are focusing on whether a 1905 congressional act took the land from the tribes, or just allowed white people to settle tribal land.

CAPELLA MORRIS: I think a lot of people are just like: Oh, it isn't fair. And they're just saying that because there is a lot of tension between the rez and Riverton and the surrounding areas.

ZHOROV: That's Capella Morris, from Riverton, the biggest town on the disputed land. Opinions on the decision often split along racial lines, something Morris says muddies the conversation.

MORRIS: I think it more has to do with the fact that people feel uncomfortable with it, than really if it's legally the right thing or not.

ZHOROV: Legally, the Wyoming Supreme Court has confirmed that Riverton is not tribal land. That's something Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead is using to fight the EPA decision. He says law enforcement jurisdiction, taxation, inspection of restaurants and property rights issues are among the other legal issues that could be affected by EPA's action. But he doesn't blame the tribes.

GOV. MATT MEAD: My angst and my frustration is, of course, with the EPA regulatory agency coming in, redefining those boundaries without notice to the state. I don't believe they have the authority to do that, and I don't believe that they are right on the law or history.

DARWIN ST. CLAIR JR.: Historically, the tribes probably had been taken advantage of, at that time. And Fremont County and the state of Wyoming have had it pretty good. And, you know, things have changed.

ZHOROV: That's chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council Darwin St. Clair Jr. The tribes are taking the state's swift, at times strongly worded, reaction personally.

ST. CLAIR JR.: You know, we say history repeats itself. History only repeats itself if you make the same decision.

ZHOROV: Both the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho tribes see the EPA boundaries as returning land that was improperly taken over a century ago. Both insist their focus is on air-quality monitoring, and both say they're willing to sit down with the non-tribal leaders in the state to work out the implications.

But not everyone trusts that the tribes' intentions are good. Here's Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness.

MAYOR RON WARPNESS: My opinion is that there is an ulterior motive on somebody's part, either the EPA or the tribes. And where it's at, I don't know.

ZHOROV: Warpness thinks the decision is a roundabout way for the tribes to get their land back.

JERRY KINTZLER: These are popular flowers. These are proteas. They're from South America.

ZHOROV: Jerry Kintzler was born in Riverton before there was a hospital there. Today, he runs a flower shop on Main Street.

KINTZLER: We've been at this a long time.

ZHOROV: He doesn't expect the state to accept Riverton as tribal land in his lifetime, but he's actually more concerned about people's reactions.

KINTZLER: I think we all need to be a little more tolerant and not cause panic. And right now, that's what's happening, and it's unnecessary at this point and time.

ZHOROV: Ultimately, the legality of EPA's decision will be up to a court. Wyoming has appealed to the Tenth Circuit, and the environmental agency has decided to hold off on air-monitoring efforts in the disputed areas for now.

For NPR News, I'm Irina Zhorov in Laramie, Wyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.