Osage Nation Chief Challenges Enforcement Of State Law On Tribal Grounds

Saturday, July 7th 2007, 8:27 pm
By: News On 6

FAIRFAX, Okla. (AP) _ The chief of the Osage Nation is challenging the state of Oklahoma's authority to enforce state law and regulations in tribal stores and shops.

Principal Chief Jim Gray claims state consumer protection inspectors have no authority to enter a tribe-owned store in Fairfax called Palace of the Osage. Gray maintains the store lies within the Osage Reservation, which he claims includes all of Osage County.

In a May 22 letter to the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Gray said only the tribe's laws apply.

``As such, from this point forward unless federal laws or the laws of the (Osage) Nation provide otherwise, neither the Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry, nor any other state agency has lawful authority to enter the Palace of the Osage, or any other tribally owned business located within the Osage Reservation for the purpose of enforcing state law and regulations,'' Gray wrote.

The dispute involves consumer protection inspections of the tribe's Fairfax grocery store dating to 2005. An inspector notified the store of pricing errors on several visits, records show.

For instance, margarine marked at $1.49 actually cost $1.99. A gallon of barbecue sauce advertised at $10.18 actually cost $13.29. In several instances, however, the store charged less than the offered price.

Under the Oklahoma Weights and Measures Law, store price scanners must match the offered price 98 percent of the time.

The Agriculture Department's consumer protection services division wrote at least three notices of violation this year and imposed a $2,100 fine, which the store paid, records show.

Gray's letter said the store manager never told tribal government officials about the inspections and agreed to pay the fine without first contacting Gray. Payment of the fine does not mean the tribe consents to state jurisdiction over the store, Gray wrote.

It is generally accepted that the state cannot enforce most codes and regulations on Indian trust land in Oklahoma. For instance, state Fire Marshal Robert Doke has said his agents cannot enter tribal casinos and inspect for occupancy and smoking restrictions.

However, the Osage's grocery store is not on trust land. The tribe has paid taxes on the store's property for years and last year paid $1,739 in property taxes, said county Assessor Gail Hedgcoth.

The Agriculture Department's general counsel, Janet Stewart, said her understanding is that all tribe-owned property is considered Indian land and therefore exempt from state laws. The agency sent Gray a letter on June 28 seeking to ``work together'' concerning consumer protection enforcement. Gray has not responded, Stewart said.

Not all state attorneys agree with Stewart. The Oklahoma Tax Commission has been fighting the issue of the Osage's jurisdiction in federal courts since 2001.

In that case, the tribe claims its employees who live in Osage County are exempt from paying state income taxes. An attorney for the tribe noted that the National Indian Gaming Commission ruled that the Osages, unlike any other Oklahoma tribe, still have a reservation. That reservation is Osage County, the federal agency said.

A federal judge in Tulsa dismissed the lawsuit in 2003. The tribe appealed to a federal appeals court in Denver, where oral arguments were held nearly three years ago. The appeals court has not issued a ruling.