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Conflict Resolution in Indian Country

On June 1, 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno issued the
Department of Justice “Policy on Indian Sovereignty and
Government to Government Relations with Indian Tribes.” It
reaffirms the sovereign status of federally recognized Indian
Tribes as domestic dependent nations, support for Tribal selfgovernment, and the Department’s commitment to upholding the
United States’ trust responsibility and maintaining governmentto-government relations with Indian Nations. One arm of the
Department of Justice, the Community Relations Service (CRS),
carries out this policy by the use of mediation, rather than
through enforcement or litigation. CRS provides mediation and
conflict resolution services to Tribal governments, law
enforcement, and communities on and off the reservation, when
community tensions arise over racial or ethnic issues. CRS
assists Tribal Governments in resolving disputes by dialogue
and joint problem-solving.

CRS can help resolve issues involving law enforcement and land
jurisdiction; environment and religious sites; gaming and state
enforcement; religious rights within schools and prisons;
hunting, gathering, and fishing rights; hate crimes; and conflicts
with non-Indian communities.

CRS does not promote or represent the interests of any
organization or government entity. Instead, CRS is available as
an impartial service to mediate disagreements and conflicts
between Indian communities, other governmental and private
entities, and communities. CRS conciliators are especially
cognizant of the unique sovereignty of Indian nations and the
special trust responsibility between the United States and these
nations. CRS does not attempt to impose its own preconceived
resolutions on parties involved in disputes, but instead seeks to
facilitate peaceful solutions through dialogue and discussion.
Requesting CRS to assess or conciliate a dispute does not forfeit
the right of any party to use the court system or any other
dispute resolution method.

In an era where Tribal courts, as well as State and Federal courts,
are shouldering an increasing caseload, court adjudication can
become an arduous and expensive proposition. Often, issues are
complex and not susceptible to easy solutions. CRS offers a
viable mediation alternative.

Tribal offices and agencies are often faced with complaints and
conflicts over treatment and services. Short of taking it to court,
Tribal residents may have few options for resolving conflicts,
disagreements, or mistreatment. CRS helps institute two
mechanisms which can address many such issues on
reservations. One is a mediation or alternative dispute resolution
(ADR) component in the court system, similar to what county
and State courts around the country have created. Mediation is
particularly effective in neighbor to neighbor, family, and child
custody cases. A second is the formation of a Tribal Human
Rights Commission, which can hear and review allegations of
mistreatment or violation of rights. A commission, with staff
trained in conflict resolution techniques, can help resolve
individual cases in a mutually agreeable manner and bring
attention to systemic problems.

Examples of CRS Services

Several examples of successful mediation of disputes involving
Tribal and community interests demonstrate the value of CRS
and mediation.

Mediation at the Pine Ridge Reservation –

Then and Now

During the 1973 encampment at Wounded Knee, on the Pine
Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, Tribal members and the
American Indian Movement protested policies of the Oglala
Sioux Tribal government and Federal government. Federal, State,
and Tribal law enforcement officials were on the verge of using
force to evict the protest group. CRS mediators helped bring a
peaceful resolution to the standoff by establishing
communications between the protestors and police, by relaying
concerns to Federal officials, and by negotiating a
disengagement agreement. Without this communication, a
peaceful resolution may have not been possible. Recently, the
Chief Judge of the Oglala Sioux of the Tribal Court invited CRS
to the Pine Ridge reservation to mediate a dispute between
Tribal members and an independent radio station over issues of
program content and management of the station. That dispute
was peacefully resolved.

Mediation of Public Safety Issues

CRS mediates racial conflict between Indian communities and
neighboring communities, including State and local law
enforcement agencies. In Shingle Springs, California, racial
tensions developed between residents of the rancheria and the
neighboring homeowners’ associations, requiring the
involvement of the county sheriffs department. Issues over
easements, road access and traffic congestion escalated into
lawsuits. At the request of the Bureau of Indian Affairs,
Department of Interior, and the Tribal Council, CRS arranged for
direct discussions between the Tribal members and
homeowners’ associations to resolve the conflicts and build
cooperation among neighbors.

On the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, CRS mediated
sessions between Tribal police and government, the State
Attorney General, County Sheriff, and U.S. Attorney. The
discussions led to a signed agreement that State officials would
be accompanied by a Tribal law enforcement supervisor while on
trust land, that new procedures would govern reciprocal
extradition of suspects, and more effective approaches would be
developed for youthful offenders.

CRS was asked by the Tribal
Council of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians
and the Sheriff of Ashland County, Wisconsin to help settle a dispute
between the Tribe and the Wisconsin Central Railroad, which was shipping toxic
sulfuric acid across its reservation on tracks they believed to be unsafe.

When the railroad
continued the shipments, its tracks were blockaded. The railroad’s threat to
run the blockade intensified the tension between the Tribe, the railroad, and
State and local law enforcement officers and violence appeared imminent.

Tension eased after all parties agreed CRS would mediate
the dispute. In his letter to Attorney General Reno, Tribal
Chairman John Wilmer, Sr., tells about the mediation:
“[CRS] met with all parties involved in the dispute and
almost immediately instilled a shared sense of trust in his
integrity and ability. [CRS] worked tirelessly to find
common ground among the parties and ease any existing
tensions. Because of [CRS] efforts, the parties have worked
through most of their differences and are looking forward
to a resolution of the matter after a recess in the
negotiations dedicated to researching the remaining
issues at hand . I am sincerely grateful that the Department
of Justice has a program like CRS.” Shortly after, an
agreement was reached that included a significant
reduction in shipments by the railroad company.

Mediation of Cross Cultural Disputes

Many times Indian rights
and interests are overlooked or ignored due to lack of education and
cultural understanding. In these instances, CRS assists in bringing understanding
and appreciation for cultural differences. In one case, CRS mediated issues
over the use of native ceremonial practices by a border town school district
during its homecoming ceremonies.

Indian Tribes holding significant natural resources on their
lands report increasing conflicts, as plans by governments and
private entities to develop the land for industrial or tourist
purposes clash with spiritual practices. In California, CRS
responded to tensions involving a coalition of Tribes and Native
American organizations which protested the proposed Ward
Valley nuclear waste facility near Needles, California because of
the spiritual significance of that land to people who have lived in
that area for generations.

Similarly, CRS responded when native groups opposed climbing
on Devil’s Tower in Wyoming during the month that the Tower
is used for spiritual purposes. CRS helped reach a resolution
which called for a ban on climbers during the month. CRS has
responded to tensions in several cities where allegations of
police abuse have been leveled by Native Americans and Tribal
leaders. Finally, CRS helped public school districts resolve racial
animosities that arose after altercations between Indian and nonIndian students.

A Chumash Indian Tribe in California contacted CRS
when an ancient Chumash burial ground was under
consideration as the future site of a retirement complex for
military veterans. The parties included a veterans group,
the State of California, developers, the city of Ventura, and
the Tribe. While the Tribe supported the development, it
was deeply concerned about possible desecration of the
ground and treatment of the remains. The dispute was
resolved by mediation, and the developers agreed to
design the complex to preserve the original burial site and
to commemorate it with a Native American memorial.

Mediation of Taxation and Business Issues

CRS was asked by Tribal groups
to conciliate a variety of issues involving the extent of Tribal and State regulatory
authority in such areas as taxation, employment, and business regulation. CRS
was called upon to conciliate disputes between the State of New York and several
Indian nations, including the Senecas, Mohawks and Oneidas, over the right
of the State to collect State sales tax on cigarettes. CRS mediated a dispute
between the Onondaga Nation Governing Council and businessmen over the collection
of sales taxes on cigarettes and gasoline. CRS helped resolve a conflict between
the state of Idaho and Tribes over the Tribes’ authority to apply their own
ordinances to public school construction projects on Idaho reservations.

CRS Mission and

In accordance with Title X of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42
USC §2000g, CRS seeks to prevent or resolve community
conflicts and tensions arising from actions, policies, and
practices perceived to be discriminatory on the basis or race,
color, or national origin, CRS provides services, including
conciliation, mediation, and technical assistance, directly to
people and their communities to help them resolve conflicts that
tear at the fabric of our increasingly diverse society.

CRS Program Goals:

To create opportunities and
mechanisms for constructive civic discourse on issues of race and ethnicity.
CRS helps give national leadership and assistance to efforts to establish “places
and spaces” for candid race relations discussions.

To provide
a high caliber of conflict resolution and prevention services to those communities
most vulnerable to significant race relations tensions, conflicts, and violence.

To build enhanced dispute resolution capabilities in local communities, including
high schools, colleges and universities, so that local institutions will be able
to resolve their own conflicts without external assistance.

To establish
bridges between minority groups and law enforcement organizations in order to
improve relations and community safety, and to reduce the potential for community

To improve
the preparedness of communities to respond to civil unrest, including activities
by hate groups, through the provision of training, contingency planning, and
technical assistance.

Customer Service Standards

Community Relations Service

Our goal is to provide sensitive and effective conflict
prevention and resolution services. CRS will meet the
following Standards:

We will clearly explain the
process that CRS uses to address racial and ethnic conflicts and our role in
that process.

We will provide opportunities
for all parties involved to contribute to and work toward a solution to the
racial or ethnic conflict.

If you are a participant
in a CRS training session or conference, you will receive timely and useful
information and materials that will assist you in preventing or minimizing racial
and ethnic tensions. If you would like more information, we will work with you
to identify additional materials and resources to meet your needs within three
weeks of teaming your need.

We will be prepared to provide
on-site services in major racial or ethnic crisis situations within 24 hours
from the time when your community notifies CRS or CRS becomes aware of the crisis.

In non-crisis situations
we will contact you to discuss our services within three days of when your community
notifies CRS or when CRS becomes aware of the situation.

CRS has 14 offices across the country. To explore assistance from CRS, please call 202/305-2935, or write to the Community
Relations Service, U.S. Department of Justice, 600 E Street, NW, Suite 2000, Washington, D.C. 20530.


Managing Editor In business since 1996, is the world’s leading mediation and dispute resolution website with over 7 million annual site visitors. serves as a bridge between professionals offering dispute resolution services and individuals and businesses needing those services. was awarded the 2010 American Bar Association Institutional Problem Solver of… MORE >

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