Yakama Nation tribal court asserts authority

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YAKIMA — A Yakama Nation tribal court has ruled that it has jurisdiction in a lawsuit that accuses the state Fish and Wildlife Department of failing to control elk at an off-reservation sacred burial site.

It's a test case for the authority of the tribal court, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported Wednesday.

Chief Judge Ted Strong ruled in favor of the tribal member who brought the civil suit when he decided Friday that the tribal court has the authority to hear the case. He ordered the parties to discuss settlement options before the next court hearing on June 19.

Attorneys for the state had asked the court to throw out the lawsuit, saying it lacked authority over Wildlife Department officials because they are not tribal members and because the burial site is not on the reservation.

"The Yakama tribal member who seeks preservation of the ancient burial grounds has no less right to be heard by this court simply because the remains of his fellow Yakama lies buried in the grave some miles distant from the Yakama Reservation boundary," Strong wrote in his jurisdiction decision.

The case was brought under a 1989 state law allowing tribal members to seek damages against those who have knowingly damaged Indian burial sites. The law allows cases to be brought in superior or tribal court, but this is the first time a case has been heard in tribal court, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported.

Typically, tribal courts only have jurisdiction over cases involving tribal members and tribal lands.

The attorney general's office said it's reviewing the decision, and the lawyer for the tribal member said he expects the state will appeal.

""My sense is that ultimately it will end up in federal court," said attorney Jack Fiander, who represents Shay-Ya-Boon-Il-Pilpsh, who is also known as Ricky Watlamet.

Fiander said he hopes the case can demonstrate the fair, professional process of the tribal court.