Two national organizations — including a locally based group that emerged 15 years ago in a shellfish dispute with Western Washington tribes — have joined forces to push for reform of what they call the...

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Two national organizations — including a locally based group that emerged 15 years ago in a shellfish dispute with Western Washington tribes — have joined forces to push for reform of what they call the nation’s flawed and fractured policy on Native people.

Redmond-based United Property Owners has merged with One Nation of Oklahoma, which includes oil producers and farm interests, and in its two years has aggressively challenged American Indian sovereignty.

The merger, effective Jan. 1, will form a megagroup called One Nation United, with 300,000 members in 50 states.

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The combined group has taken aim at federal Indian policies, including tax allowances, which they say erode state and local tax bases and undermine free enterprise. They contend that a century and a half after many Indian treaties were negotiated, they are in need of review.

“We know that we’ve got truth, justice and the American way on our side and that ultimately reforms will happen,” said Barbara Lindsay, executive director of United Property Owners and national director of the combined group.

Tribal leaders across Washington say organizations such as Lindsay’s are emerging just as wealth from gaming and other businesses is, for the first time, giving some of the nation’s poorest citizens a shot at economic independence.

“These groups are trying to get more organized to counter the fact that tribes have become more organized — and they see themselves losing this battle,” said W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Council in Sequim.

“We are making progress, and people like these want to undermine us. They’ll say that is not their intent, but if their agenda is accepted as political policy, we would set back the conditions of Indian Country by decades.”

Robert Anderson, a University of Washington assistant law professor and director of the Native American Law Center, sees such groups as a national disruption.

“They are way out there on the lunatic fringe … either racists or just so tied up with their hatred for the federal government and recognition of Indian rights that they foment unnecessary litigation,” Anderson said.

“They ignore the fact that tribes have legitimate roles in governing themselves in their own territory. What they are doing is really harmful to what happens in most of Indian Country — where tribes and non-Indians are trying to work together for the betterment of those communities.”

Lindsay, who defends her organization as neither racist nor anti-Indian, said, “We need to find a resolution to some very complex problems, including the impact of federal Indian policy on nontribal property owners and businesses. All we’re asking for is balance and fairness and common sense to be injected.”

A lobbying force

With trade members that include the Oklahoma Farm Bureau and Oklahoma Petroleum Marketers, One Nation has been a lobbying force in that state, which has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of tribally owned casinos.

In Washington, United Property Owners was formed by a group of mostly beachfront landowners in a legal dispute with Puget Sound-area tribes claiming their treaty rights to take shellfish from public and private beaches. U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie imposed some restrictions on access but sided with the tribes.

Among the items on the merged group’s agenda:

• Protecting private-property rights — primarily of nontribal residents who live on or adjacent to Indian reservations and are subject to regulation by tribes.

• Lessening sovereign immunity, which protects tribes from lawsuits.

• Ending the tribes’ exemption from federal campaign-contribution limits.

• Changing the process that allows the transfer of property from local and state tax rolls into federal trust exclusively for Indian use.

• Equalizing sales- and excise-tax policies for tribal and nontribal businesses.

• Overturning the policy under which tribes are allowed regulatory authority over water, air quality, pesticide and Superfund cleanup on land on or near reservations.

“Tribes already have such a distinct advantage in so many other ways because they are not subject to so many of the other regulatory burdens that other business have to bear,” Lindsay said.

“Our peace treaties”

The sovereignty of tribes, which puts them on a par with states and foreign nations, is established in the U.S. Constitution. Sovereignty affords certain benefits and advantages. Tribes don’t pay some state taxes that non-Indians living on or off reservations do. However, tribes finance much of their own infrastructure, including building and maintaining roads within reservations, and they pay for tribal police and fire services, housing, health clinics and other public services.

Tribal members aren’t required to pay sales taxes on items purchased on the reservation, whether from a car dealership or a Wal-Mart store.

Lindsay thinks many aspects of U.S. policies on Indians hurt all taxpayers. A key concern for her group is a 1934 act that allows land to be transferred from fee status, where it’s subject to state and local taxes, to trust status, where it’s exempt.

Some tribes, with money from tax-exempt casino profits, are buying property, and “as more and more lands move off local tax rolls, everyone else’s taxes have to be raised,” Lindsay said. “We’re concerned over the loss to state and county governments of more and more property-tax dollars.”

Matt Mattson, Snoqualmie Tribe administrator, said Lindsay tries to “paint tribes as special-interest groups who receive certain exemptions that are somehow unfair.

“The fact is, the U.S. government made deals with tribes hundreds of years ago. If the government doesn’t like these deals, then give the land back. These were our peace treaties.”

Competition vs. obligation

Mike Chandler, a non-Indian who owns two gas stations in Toppenish, Yakima County, within the boundaries of the Yakama Reservation, is torn between what he sees as unfair tribal competition vs. the nation’s obligation to the Indian people.

He gets many tribal customers at his two Conoco stations, located within blocks of a tribally owned station. And he said his business, in his family for three generations, is at a pricing disadvantage.

While non-Indian station owners are taxed 28 cents a gallon on their purchases of gasoline and diesel, a federal agreement reduces that rate for stations owned by the Yakama Tribe and its members by 70 percent (to 8.4 cents) per gallon for gasoline and eliminates the tax entirely on diesel, according to the Washington Department of Licensing.

As a result, Chandler said, the tribe can undersell all its competitors — even retailers such as Costco that use low-priced gasoline as a way to lure customers. If he’s lucky, he said, he can come within 5 cents, on average, of the tribe’s price.

“When I go by the tribally owned station, there’ll be 16, 20 cars at the pumps, while here we have three, maybe. Who doesn’t want less-expensive gas?

“It kills volumes. And when we try to get close to them, there’s no profit.”

The gas-tax arrangement with the Yakamas is different from the one Washington state has with 13 other tribes, which are reimbursed monthly the amount of taxes tribally owned stations pay when they buy gasoline from wholesalers. The amount of the refund is based on a formula that considers the number of enrolled tribal members living on or adjacent to reservations.

The arrangement removes any advantage the tribes might have at the pumps, because the reimbursement goes to the tribe, not the individual stations.

Through November, gasoline and diesel reimbursements to the tribes this year totaled $2.2 million.

Allen, the Jamestown S’Klallam leader, points out that for every Indian-owned business that gets a pass on gas and sales taxes, there are nine others off the reservations that do not.

“The fact is when it comes to things like sales taxes, no government has the authority to tax another government,” he said.

Allen believes the debate comes down to a question of economic self-reliance for Native people.

“The ability of tribes to become more self-reliant based on business opportunity has emerged in the last 10 years,” he said. “If you look at the socioeconomic conditions of Indian people, we’ve always been at the very bottom of every measurement.

“Now, we are addressing generations of need in our communities, providing housing opportunities, jobs, health care, education for our people. And they want to take those opportunities away.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com