House subcommittee hearing on land-into-trust turns heated

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) chairs the hearing of the House Subcommittee Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs. Photo from Facebook

A bizarre and shocking scene unfolded on Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon at a heated hearing on the land-into-trust process.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, set an ominous tone at the start of the proceeding when he singled out the National Congress of American Indians. He accused the largest inter-tribal organization of questioning his commitment to Indian Country.

"I don't appreciate it," Young said. "I know who's involved and if you want to have open access to this chairmanship -- as long as I sit here, I will be chairman -- I'm going to suggest we play ball straight."

Young insinuated that NCAI was going to face retribution for pouring "a lot of fire and gasoline on an issue that shouldn't have been an issue."

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Oversight Hearing on Inadequate Standards for Trust Land Acquisition in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934

"To bring me into question does yourself a disservice," Young said, singling out anyone from NCAI who was in the audience. "When I'm not happy, you're not going to be happy either."

Later on, Young turned against one of his Democratic colleagues. Rep. Norma Torres (D-California) questioned the motivation for the hearing -- the title alone sowed doubts about the process that was authorized by Congress through the Indian Reorganization Act -- and the chairman appeared to take insult.

"Divide and conquer has been the business of this subcommittee," observed Torres, a new member of Congress who noted that the IRA ended the "racist and misguided" allotment policy that robbed tribes of 90 million acres between 1887 and 1934.

"I just want to assure the lady that this committee never divides and conquers," Young said after Torres gave her statement and after she asked a few questions of Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"Whoever wrote that testimony I want to talk to them a little later on," Young added, again implying a sense of retribution. "You did a good job of slamming the chairman."

Rep. Norma Torres (D-California). Photo from Facebook

Young then shut off his microphone but continued to engage Torres. "I'm happy to come to your office" to discuss the statement, she replied.

"Why don't you, instead of taking a shot at me in the committee," Young said.

"You're the one taking a shot at the people in the audience," Torres responded.

At one point, it looked like Young thrust one of his hands in Torres's direction, a few seats away on the dais. "Are you acting like you're shooting at me?" she asked as the audience watched in shock.

Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Photo from Twitter

The negative tone of the hearing appeared to come as no surprise to Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. Last month, he endured an equally pained proceeding in which some members of the subcommittee questioned the legitimacy of tribes that have successfully completed the BIA's federal recognition process.

"Three weeks ago, when a fusillade was launched towards Indian Country, the other members who were present said nothing," Washburn said during his testimony. "That worries Indian Country a great deal."

"It's on your conscience and it's on mine if this attack on Indian Country is allowed to succeed," Washburn added. "I don't intend to stand idly by and let it happen on my watch and I ask the same of you."

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), who is one of only two members of a federally recognized tribe in Congress, also questioned the motives behind the hearing. He took issue with a memo circulated by the Republican majority staff that described the General Allotment Act as a "humane" law that was designed to help Indian people break out of poverty.

Cole, whose ancestors were forced to walk the Trail of Tears to present-day Oklahoma, said that characterization couldn't have been farther from the truth. The Chickasaw Nation, like many other tribes, enjoyed prosperity and maintained a well-functioning government before allotment destroyed everything, he told his colleagues.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, is one of only two members of a federally-recognized tribe in Congress. Photo from Flickr

"The Indians in Oklahoma were neither impoverished nor backward," Cole said. "They were actually more progressive -- they had their own governments, their own written languages, their own territory -- they were all opposed to what happened to them."

"The Dawes Commission was an egregious violation of every treaty that the United States had signed," Cole said, referring to the federal body that stripped tribes of their land. "The Indian Reorganization Act was an effort to reverse that awful and tragic mistake."

At the end of the hearing, Young tried to address fears that he was somehow questioning the legitimacy of the land-into-trust process. On the contrary, he said he supports a fix to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar.

"That's really what we're trying to solve here," Young said.

The Obama administration, the National Congress of American Indians, the United South and Eastern Tribes and most other tribal organizations support a "clean" Carcieri fix. They want to ensure that all tribes, regardless of the date or method of federal recognition, can follow the land-into-trust process.

But a fix has been held up for six years amid concerns on Capitol Hill about gaming and other issues. The landscape becomes even more complex when state and local governments, plus community groups, are added into the mix.

Only one county representative testified at the hearing, which lasted about an hour and 24 minutes. Audio can be found on the Indianz.Com SoundCloud.

After the hearing ended, Torres offered her assesment on Twitter. "No intent to insult, only have a frank conversation abt serious issues," her post stated.

Committee Notice:
Oversight Hearing on "Inadequate Standards for Trust Land Acquisition in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934." (May 14, 2015)

Join the Conversation
Related Stories:
Witness list for House subcommittee land-into-trust hearing (5/13)
House subcommittee schedules hearing on land-into-trust (5/11)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee ready for discussion on Carcieri (03/24)
Bill introduced in Senate to fix Carcieri land-into-trust decision (03/16)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee to host roundtable on Carcieri (3/13)
Updates from National Congress of American Indians winter session (02/26)
Updates from National Congress of American Indians winter session (02/25)
ICT interview with Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn at BIA (11/17)
Tribal leaders headed to Capitol Hill to push legislative priorities (09/16)
Paul Moorehead: Let's get back to promoting self-government (07/30)
Rep. Young offers explanation for inaction on land-into-trust fix (07/15)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee approves five bills at meeting (06/11)
Dave Palermo: Lobbyists battle on fix to land-into-trust ruling (4/30)
Law Article: DOI takes diligent approach with land-into-trust (03/19)
DOI addresses Carcieri land-into-trust decision in legal opinion (03/13)
Trending in News
More Headlines