From left: Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Steven Begay, Council Delegate Tuchoney Slim, Jr., Council Delegate Davis Filfred, and Council Delegate Kee Allen Begay, Jr., inspect the Navajo Treaty of 1868 during the installation celebration at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. on February 20, 2018. Photo: Navajo Nation Council

Navajo Nation joins opposition to controversial 'fugitives' bill in Congress

The Navajo Nation is registering opposition to a controversial bill that's been called a threat to tribal sovereignty.

If H.R.4864, also known as the No Haven for Dangerous Fugitives Act, becomes law, it would allow authorities to come onto the reservation -- the largest in the United States -- and arrest so-called "fugitives," according to the Navajo Nation Council, the tribe's legislative body. That violates the Navajo Treaty of 1868, overrides the tribe's extradition laws, violates the tribe's sovereign rights and undermines the federal government's relationship with the tribe, Navajo lawmakers said.

“If Congress passes this then it’s going to be a free-for-all for the FBI, federal law enforcement, or state police to come in and book someone and take them away without following the proper procedures,” Delegate Edmund Yazzie said in a press release.

Yazzie is the sponsor of Legislation No. 0052-18, which officially sets the Navajo Nation's opposition to H.R.4864. His measure cleared the council by a unanimous vote last week.

The move came after the leader of the National Congress of American Indians criticized H.R.4864 as a wrong-headed approach to dealing with public safety in tribal communities.

"If Congress is serious about strengthening public safety in and around Indian Country, it should build on tribal nations' successes," NCAI President Jefferson Keel said during the organization's winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 13.

Even before Navajo lawmakers and Keel spoke out against H.R.4686, Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe slammed it as a bill with "racist undertones." James Swan, an activist and founder of the United Urban Warrior Society in South Dakota, called it an infringement on treaty rights.

If the measure becomes law, anyone who "enters or leaves Indian country" while being wanted on felony charges, or while being asked to give testimony in a criminal case, could be charged with a crime under a section of the U.S. Code regarding fugitives. The bill does not take into account existing tribal extradition procedures

H.R.4864 does include language that calls on the federal, state and local governments to "respect tribal sovereignty at all times." It also encourages these governments to engage in "reasonable efforts" to enter into extradition agreements with tribes.

But such language is unenforceable and would not protect anyone who might be accused of entering or leaving Indian Country.

Photo of Rep. Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota) by Gage Skidmore. Photo of Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina) by House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

The bill's prospects are uncertain, at least in the current session of Congress. It was introduced by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota), who is not seeking re-election because she is running for governor of South Dakota.

The only co-sponsor of the bill is Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina). He's also leaving Congress to return to work in the legal system. His district in South Carolina does not include any tribes.

Since the bill's introduction on January 19, no other lawmaker has signed on as a co-sponsor.

According to Navajo Nation Council Delegate Raymond Smith, Jr., the Navajo Treaty of 1868 -- which was unveiled at the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. just last week -- recognizes the tribe's right to develop its own extradition procedures. The "bad men" provisions require proof and notice to be provided to the tribe before anyone is handed over to federal authorities, he said.

Legislation No. 0052-18 was approved by the council's Naa'bik'iyati' Committee by a 12-0 vote on February. The committee serves as the last word on the measure.

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