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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers would ensure the state recognizes civil rulings made by American Indian tribal courts under a bill prompted by a dispute about whether an athlete could participate in a high school wrestling program.
The wrestling disagreement was resolved, but supporters of the legislation said it pointed out the need to make clear that tribal rulings should be enforced as other rulings would in Nebraska.
“It’s about the tribal laws and state laws, and how they coordinate so that there’s not a difficulty that would trip a family up and ruin a season or a competition,” said State Senator Rick Kolowski, of Omaha, who proposed the bill.
The matter began in 2007 when John Keen tried to enroll his son, Taylor, in a Nebraska high school wrestling program.
Keen, 43, was given legal custody of his son Taylor after he and his wife divorced in 1992. All of the proceedings took place in a Cherokee Nation tribal court in their native Oklahoma. But Keen, who is part-Cherokee and part-Omaha, said he encountered problems after his son returned to live with him in the Omaha area for his senior year.
He enrolled Taylor at Elkhorn High School in 2007 after he moved from his mother’s home in Oklahoma, where he had lived for the last year. John Keen said he presented school athletics officials with a tribal court order to show that he had legal custody of his son, Taylor.
“They said, ‘This isn’t a court,'” Keen said. “I said, ‘Well sure it is.’ That’s where I was born and raised. It’s where my son was born, and it’s where his mother and I divorced. Everything we did had to stay with that court.”
Keen and his attorney said his son was rejected because of NSAA rules that generally require student athletes to live with a custodial parent. The rules are designed to keep students from “school-shopping” for a particular athletic program.
The matter eventually was resolved, but Keens said it cost him more than $10,000 in legal fees.
Keen said a friend from the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska called him recently and asked for money to help address a similar problem. Frustrated, Keen said he reached out to his attorney and Kolowski, who represents him in the Legislature.
Kolowski said he proposed the legislation is modeled after a state law in Iowa that recognizes civil judgments in tribal courts and allows the state to enforce them.
Taylor Keen was eventually allowed to wrestle once his father showed that he had legal custody of his son and that the two were living together. Velder said the association has recognized tribal-court rulings for decades, but officials weren’t able to confirm right away that Taylor Keen met the eligibility requirements. She declined to elaborate, citing confidentiality rules.
“In Nebraska, we would accept the tribal court as a court of competent jurisdiction,” she said. “I’ve been here for 33 years, and that’s always how it’s been.”
John Keen’s attorney, Ben Thompson, said the association initially refused to recognize the order but did so “after a lot of convincing” in a meeting with the group’s attorneys.
Thompson said the Nebraska bill includes several procedural safeguards to ensure that litigants in tribal court are given due process, and that the court was the proper authority to hear a case.
“Here in Nebraska, I think we’re a bit behind the curve on these issues,” Thompson said. “I’m hoping we can catch up and join the 21st century.”
Judi M. gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, said the proposal represents an important step in ensuring tribal courts are acknowledged by the state.
The courts have gained recognition in recent year, “but it’s a really slow battle,” gaiashkibos said. “The status quo wants to remain the status quo.”
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