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California lawmakers, tribal leaders, tribal police, and academics joined a roundtable discussion in Sacramento on March 20 to discuss their concerns with Public Law 280. The decades-old law, enacted by Congress in 1953, transferred public safety responsibility on tribal lands from the federal government to six states—including California—without reimbursing costs.

California Assembly Select Committee on Native American Affairs Chair James Ramos, a member of the Serrano/Cahuilla tribe in San Bernardino County, opened the discussion by introducing Public Law 280 as a law that has “plagued” California tribes for many years by leaving them “without true policing authority.” 

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In addition to California, states required by Public Law 280 to assume civil and criminal jurisdiction over federal Indian lands include Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin. 

In each of those states, state authority was substituted for federal authority on designated Indian reservations, with few exceptions. On reservations that aren’t subject to the law, crimes committed by non-Natives against tribal members are considered federal offenses and tribal police—with training and funding by the US Department of the Interior— are able to carry out arrests and investigations.

“Public Law 280 has a very problematic origin story,” said Carole Goldberg, an Indian law professor at the University of California. In 2010, Goldberg was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Indian Law and Order Commission, which investigated issues of safety and justice in tribal communities. “It was part of the federal government's 1950s policy known as termination, which denied Native nations’ sovereignty, disavowed the federal government’s trust responsibility for safety in tribal communities, and promoted forced assimilation of Native peoples by subjecting them to state law.” 

Goldberg added that the measures introduced were based on “racist assumptions” that tribes could not provide safety in their own communities.

The result has eroded tribal sovereignty, overburdened state law enforcement by passing them additional police responsibility without funding, and has created jurisdictional gaps of sub-standard and culturally inappropriate service to tribal nations, according to speakers on March 20.

Yurok Tribal Court Judge Abby Abinanti called the original intent of the law a “joke on everyone” because it was created to protect non-Natives from Natives without offering any protection for Natives and without funding to local law enforcement. 

“What you got was the federal government going: ‘We're gonna dump this [jurisdiction] on all of you, and we're not going to give you any money for this added jurisdiction,” Abinanti said.

Not only have Yurok Tribal members suffered as a result, but so have local communities and surrounding states, Abinanti noted. 

“Law enforcement in rural areas [have been] significantly impacted by the failure of the federal government to pay for their responsibility in the state,” she said. 

Assembly Member Ramos attributed Public Law 280 to weakened tribal safety and, thus an increase in the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People.

“PL 280 has resulted in jurisdictional confusion, lack of trust between tribes and outside law enforcement, and a lack of resources for tribal police and courts,” he said. “PL 280 states rank higher in the country than other states in the number of their MMIP cases.”

 Yurok tribal member Taralyn Ipiña reinforced Ramos’ statement with personal experience. In the summer of 2023, Ipiña’s sister went missing in San Francisco. After six days of no communication, her family decided to file a missing person’s report with local police.  

“It was an extremely difficult decision to call my law enforcement because of this deep-seated mistrust,” Ipiña said. “We were eventually told that an adult woman doesn't go missing, that it's a choice.”

Ipiña’s attempt to issue a feather alert — a statewide public alert for missing Indigenous peoples — for her missing sister was denied, leaving her family feeling “helpless and devastated.” Her sister was eventually found safely, but Ipiña said her family shouldn’t have had to wait as long as they did, and experienced trauma as a result.

“Tribal law enforcement know their citizens, they are trauma-informed, and need the funding and authority to ensure public safety on tribal lands,” Ipiña said.

Yurok Tribal Chief of Police Greg O’Roruke testified that every Native person in the room likely has a story about abuse of law enforcement, including himself.

He remembered a time in his career when he and his non-Native partner responded to a call for sexual abuse of a minor on the Yurok Reservation.

“I remember my partner saying ‘Do the people on the reservation have kids just so they can molest them?’” O’Roruke said. “This person was a good man, a good cop. But that was the response. How can you provide accurate and humane services when that is the first thing that comes to mind?” 

As a result of input from last Wednesday’s meeting, California lawmakers are refining proposed legislation to work around Public Law 280’s shortcomings, Ramos said. The lawmaker introduced AB 2138 earlier this year—with an expected hearing date in April— which deals with policing on tribal lands. 

The roundtable can be viewed in its entirety here.

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Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.