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Conference to focus on legal issues in Indian Country

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Some of the most important legal issues in Indian Country are the focus of a conference at the University of Montana School of Law this week.

Panel discussions during Indian Law Week will scrutinize matters beyond the $3 billion settlement in the Cobell v. Salazar Indian trust case that has been in the spotlight much of the last few years.

The week's events, hosted by the Native American Law Student Association, begin with an examination of the U.S. Supreme Court's Montana v. U.S. decision in 1981, a ruling that has proved problematic for tribes for three decades now.

The last paragraph of the decision severely limited tribes' ability to regulate non-Indians on "fee" land - that is, land that lies within reservations but isn't owned by a tribe.

That single paragraph has been cited on issues from personal injury to taxation, zoning and water rights, said UM law professor Raymond Cross.

"This has become the Swiss Army knife of non-Indian defense ... ," he said. "The practical fallout is quite substantial."

Cross will join Crow tribal attorney Urban Bear Don't Walk Sr. and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Appellate Judge Cher Stewart on a panel discussing the topic at noon Monday.

Tuesday's panel, Comparative Law in Indian Country, homes in on things people should know when dealing with tribes within Montana or when entering their land. Panelists are Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal attorney John Harrison, Crow joint lead executive counsel Heather Whiteman Runs Him, and UM law professor Elizabeth Kronk.

Montana's U.S. attorney, Michael Cotter, comes to the law school Wednesday to talk about the Tribal Law and Order Act, signed by President Barack Obama in July.

"I intend to send a clear message that all of our people, whether they live in our biggest cities or our most remote reservations, have the right to feel safe in their own communities, to raise their children in peace and enjoy the fullest protection of our laws," Obama said at the time.

Justice Department statistics show that's not the case on many reservations, particularly for Native American women, who suffer violent crime at 3 1/2 times the rate of the general population.

The act deputizes special U.S. attorneys to prosecute crimes on reservations, and pays specific attention to sexual assault and domestic violence.

All panel discussions, which are free, will take place at noon in Room 101 of the law school. Thursday features "An Evening With NALSA" at 5:30 p.m. at the Payne Family Native American Center. The reception, which costs $10, includes the announcement of this year's Mi-Ha-Ka-Ta-Kis Ray Cross Award.

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268 or at


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