From Conflict to Cooperation

By PON Staffon / News

Opening Lines of Communication in an Idaho/Nez Perce Jurisdictional Dispute

Presented in cooperation with the Harvard Native American Law Student Association, and the Harvard University Native American Program.

Two Nez Perce Tribal Council members and two Idaho local government officials brought their perspectives on an inter-governmental jurisdictional dispute to Harvard Law School on December 3, 2003. Speaking at a faculty luncheon and at an evening panel that drew over 70 students and community members, the guests told their audiences of the success of KSG Assistant Professor Keith Allred and Professor Joseph Kalt’s efforts to re-establish lines of communication that had deteriorated over several years of heightening tensions.

At issue was the extraordinarily complicated array of concerns in which Nez Perce and local Idaho governments overlap in their jurisdiction. Because of US government policies over the years, the Nez Perce reservation has become divided into a patchwork of private properties, only a fraction of which are still owned by members of the Tribe. As other local governments began springing up in the midst of Nez Perce land, the stage was set for disagreements over jurisdiction, and many developed over the years, involving issues in schooling, law enforcement, employment policy, water rights, and more.

The guests, Henry L. “Roy” Clay, former Mayor of the city of Orofino, Samuel N. Penney, Council Member and former Chair of the Nez Perce Tribe, Rick E. Laam, City Administrator of Orofino, and Jacob B. Whiteplume, Council Member of the Nez Perce Tribe, brought a personal perspective to the process of breaking down the impasse that had grown up between an alliance of 23 local governments and the Tribe. Among other things, both sides emphasized their mistake of using the media as a means of communication — the polarizing spin that news sources had put on their editorials and articles had played a significant role in building mistrust and resentment over the years.

Highlighted during both events was the success of an educational seminar offered by Allred and Kalt in which both groups could learn about similar conflicts and techniques others had used for reaching a resolution. That two-day seminar was groundbreaking. It brought the two sides into personal contact in a learning environment and allowed them to begin thinking about what could be achieved through a more cooperative approach to resolving the many complicated issues facing them.

While the local governments and the Tribe have succeeded in drafting a Memorandum of Understanding and in setting up several special working groups to address specific issues, the change that has occurred in the participants is as personal as it is political or legal. Laam spoke about the frustration and distress he had felt at being repeatedly called a bigot and a racist during years of harsh media coverage, and how he saw the seminar as his first opportunity to demonstrate his real intentions face-to-face. Penney, in turn, spoke of the symbolic importance of seemingly small advancements, such as the local governments’ new willingness to meet in Tribal offices.

Both sides described the past two years of communication and interchange as an important and transforming experience. Although an array of difficulties still remain and both sides are confronted by changing representation because of ongoing elections, they were optimistic that the learning process they had undergone could be transferred outwards to new participants and to the broader communities surrounding them. The most important moment, one guest noted, was the reminder that Allred and Kalt’s seminar subtly gave them that each side’s real purpose was to serve the best interests of their constituents, a goal that could not be accomplished without cooperation.

For more information on this event, see the article appearing in the Harvard University Gazette.