(CN) – A tribal sawmill is not exempt from a work-safety law, the 7th Circuit ruled. The Menominee Tribe invoked treaty rights in trying to avoid fines for violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act at a Wisconsin sawmill, but the circuit found that although OSHA provides an express exemption for the federal government, the law does not mention tribes.
“Statutes of general applicability that do not mention Indians are nevertheless usually held to apply to them,” the Chicago-based appellate court said.
The circuit cited three situations in which federal laws may be inapplicable to tribes: if they interfere with tribal governance, if they clash with treaty rights or if persuasive evidence exists that Congress intended an exemption to apply.
Of these, the appellate court continued, only the second situation might apply in Menominee’s case.
This is due to the 1973 Menominee Restoration Act, which set a special path for the tribe by reinstating treaty rights granting tribal property ownership.
However, the Act contained no directive exempting the tribe from OSHA, nor could a congressionally approved management plan under it be considered a separately enforceable statute.
“The Menominees’ sawmill is just a sawmill, a commercial enterprise,” the three-judge panel ruled. “A state cannot legislate an exemption from OSHA, and neither can a tribe.”