COUNTY officials in Wisconsin are leading what they hope will become a national push to get Congress to take a hard second look at federal Indian policy. Much of that policy stems from treaties signed with specific tribes in the 1800s. ``The inconsistencies and gaps in that policy cry out for federal attention,'' insists Mark Rogacki, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association.
The WCA hopes to capitalize on growing concern in some quarters of the nation about the reach of Indian treaty rights and the way they are exercised. Specific issues range from the tapping of resources on off-reservation lands to jurisdictional disputes between tribal and local governments.
A number of Indian treaty rights have recently been upheld in federal courts. The WCA is trying a political tack.
Strong WCA supporters include a few county executives from other states and antitreaty groups such as the recently formed Citizens for Equal Rights Alliance of Big Arm, Mont. The WCA hopes to persuade the National Association of Counties (NACo) to join its cause at that group's annual meeting in Miami next weekend.
``The Wisconsin counties group is a loud vocal minority that has politicians on the run - they're afraid to stand up to it,'' says Sharon Metz, coordinator of Honor Our Neighbors Origins and Rights (HONOR), a pro-Indian civic and church coalition.
About half of the nation's 1.4 million Indians live on or near reservations that are subject to federal but exempt from state law. County and tribal jurisdiction sometimes conflicts on such issues as taxes, land, and water.
The county group in Wisconsin, the home of both Progressive Party founder Robert LaFollette and conservative Communist hunter Joseph McCarthy, has become involved in the issue largely because of an economic quarrel that began over timber rights.
Several northern counties draw a hefty portion of their income from timber sales in county forests. Wisconsin's Chippewa Indians ceded most of the northern third of the state to the federal government in the 1800s but reserved the right to hunt, fish, and gather on that off-reservation land. Recent federal court rulings have upheld the Chippewa contention that timber is included on the list - confirming their right to take the timber without pay - but the judge on the case has agreed to review the question.
Most members of Congress oppose any federal reexamination of Indian treaty rights. So do native Americans.
For that reason a number of Indian tribal leaders have doggedly followed the WCA to meetings intended to garner broad support for its cause.
``That Indian lobby is strong, well-financed, and relentless in its pursuit of more power and authority,'' insists Mr. Rogacki.
``The modernization or abrogation of any treaty could eventually affect our treaties,'' says Amelia Cornelius, secretary of Wisconsin's Oneida tribe. She attended WCA meetings this year both in Salt Lake City, Utah, and in Washington, D.C.
``Our position has always been that many problems involve the tribe and community and should be resolved at the local level,'' adds Gordon Thunder, president of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, a consortium of 11 Wisconsin tribes.
So far, NACo has taken a similarly conciliatory approach. Direct negotiations between governments as ``equal partners'' are the most productive way to resolve county-tribal conflicts, says NACo lobbyist Richard Keister.
NACo Indian Affairs Task Force co-chairman James Reidhead adds that there is a need to better define governmental responsibilities in many areas but says Congress need not be involved. ``The treaties are pretty sacred ordinances - you don't mess with them.''