Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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One of the more perplexing questions people have about the reservation system deals with the taxation and jurisdiction issues that seems to surface on more than one occasion in the local papers.

Most of the tribal status can be traced back to the treaty system. Simply put, the Indians had what the whites wanted and that was the land. As history states so well, most of that was accomplished, and Indians had to be put somewhere so the concept of reservations developed.

The reserved rights doctrine, as the legal terminology calls it, provided for the tribes to live on the reservations set aside for them exclusively, to hunt as they pleased, to live as they wanted, and be free from taxation and control from the states, but under the direct control of the federal government

Of course, this model has seen its share of legal assaults.

Ironically, as the rest of the country was developed and settled, even the often desolate reservations became attractive and when the allotment policies were passed, many tribes lost much of their land base through land sales.

The few pockets of trust land left are free from state and local taxation. But, from time to time, especially when the tribal leadership was in a state of disarray, some limited taxation such as property taxes were imposed on the tribe. Yet, no improvements to the infrastructure ever came to the reservation.

So in the late 1970s, the tribal council took this matter into the court system and won back this particular exemption. After this decision, the county had no taxation power on the reservation land of tribal members.

Over the years, the IRS made it mandatory for the tribal members to pay federal taxes and this holds true today. State taxes are paid when a tribal members lives off the reservation even if he or she works on the reservation. In truth, this happens to the majority of people on the reservation since there are only about 80 jobs on the reservation and the tribal membership totals over 4,000 members.

Taxation of all kinds apply when a tribal member leaves the reservation to live in the local communities. The property tax exemption only applies to the people who live on the reservation.

Jurisdiction on tribal lands is another complex matter.

In law-enforcement, the local authorities have enforcement powers in all major crimes, but not on civil matters. This evolved from a law-enforcement vacuum back in the 1930s and the tribal business committee granted the jurisdiction to the state and many problems were averted.

But the tribe retained civil jurisdiction. Today, the tribe has a court system to handle these matters ranging from divorces to minor disputes. The only problem that needs ironing out in the future is the enforcement mechanism.

A wise man once said, "A law independent of the sword is meaningless," and in time, the tribe hopes to have a police force to correct this particular problem.

One sticky area that remains to be resolved is the zoning requirements on the reservation. Problems developed over the years because of the checkerboard land ownership on the reservation. With a recent Supreme Court decision spelling out who can govern certain areas, the problem is one that will be resolved in time.

Basically, the courts have said the tribes have zoning jurisdiction over tribal land and the local county governments have zoning jurisdiction over non-tribal land.

Of course, legal scholars can explain it better, but this is a brief overview of the taxing, enforcement, and zoning situation on the Potawatomi reservation.

First published in the Topeka Capital Journal, October 19, 1995

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