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Lawmakers slam county for poor dealings with Chumash Tribe

Witnesses appear before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs on June 16, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

House hearing exposes rift in tribal-county relations
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

Conflict between tribal and local governments was on full display as the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs heard testimony on three bills on Wednesday.

Most of the controversy centered on the tortured relationship between the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians and Santa Barbara County in California. Three witnesses offered dramatically different views on H.R.1157, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians Land Transfer Act of 2015.

The bill authorizes the Interior Department to place about 1,400 acres in trust for the tribe. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California), who introduced the measure in February, said the land is needed to improve housing conditions for tribal members.

Chairman Vincent Armenta emphasized the severe housing shortage on the reservation, noting that multiple families often live under the same roof. But he said the county's board of supervisors refuses to work with his tribe.

“The official position of the board is that tribes are not governments and therefore the county need not negotiate with them,” Armenta said. “One supervisor even went so far as to call for the end of tribal sovereignty.”

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Subcommittee Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Legislative Hearing on H.R. 1157, H.R. 2386, H.R. 2538

Steve Lavagnino, a member of the board of supervisors, acknowledged that he has concerns about the development plan. Still, he criticized his counterparts for not respecting the tribe and for instigating Congressional intervention.

“Some would consider Santa Barbara County a progressive region and it is a leader when it comes to protecting most human rights, but for some reason those same protections are not afforded to the tribe,” Lavagnino said, adding that a former supervisor once referred to tribal members as “not real sophisticated people” who “get $300,000 a year for sitting on the couch watching a Lakers game.”

County executive officer Mona Miyasato pushed back against Lavagnino’s comments, as well as questioning from several committee members who were clearly in the tribe's court. She said the county has tried to work with the tribe over concerns about the development plan.

“We never said the tribe didn’t need housing,” Miyasato told lawmakers. “There have been different stories about what has happened and ... since I’ve been with the board of supervisors we have worked with the tribe.”

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman of the subcommittee, had a different view of the controversy. He rebuked county officials for not treating the tribe as an equal and said he would move the bill forward if they didn’t start cooperating.

A view of the Chumash Tribe's land-into-trust site in Santa Barbara County, California. Photo from Chumash EA

“The right of being able to live under good shelter is a basic right of every American. We’ve provided all kinds of public housing for everybody else and yet, this group that wants to build their own houses" is facing opposition, Young said. "This bothers me."

“It's a pretty damning case, so you better go back and tell your friends that we will [pass this bill] if they don't" cooperate, Young told Miyasato. "It's that simple."

Last December, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the tribe's land-into-trust application for the site in question. But the Obama administration won't take a position on the bill because the county has filed an administrative appeal, director Mike Black said.

“Taking land into trust is one of the most important functions that the [Interior] Department undertakes on behalf of Indian tribes. Homelands are essential to the health, safety, and welfare of the tribal communities,” Black said. “The department supports mandatory fee-to-trust legislation but takes no position on H.R. 1157 given that the five parcels identified in the bill are currently on appeal.”

Totems at the Chief Shakes Tribal House in Wrangell, Alaska. The Native community in Wrangell would benefit from H.R.2386, the Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act. Photo by BeringStrait / Wikipedia

Another piece of legislation drew some fireworks at the hearing as well. H.R.2386, the Unrecognized Southeast Alaska Native Communities Recognition and Compensation Act, reopens the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to address five villages that were excluded from the 1971 law.

The villages would be allowed to form new corporations and select land in the southeastern part of the state. The Obama administration opposes the bill, arguing that it would set a "precedent" for other Native communities to reopen ANCSA, BIA director Black told the subcommittee.

The administration's stance drew criticism from Young. Just last week, the pair were at odds over another land bill that would benefit Alaska Native veterans.

“We’re talking about little, itty bits to justify the aboriginal right to those lands,” said Young, adding that he didn’t believe the risk of setting a precedent supersedes the right of Alaska Natives to their ancestral territory.

"Every other village in southeast Alaska got their lands," Young added.

A view of the Lytton Rancheria's land-into-trust site in Sonoma County, California . Photo from Lytton Residential Development Environmental Assessment

The final bill taken up by the subcommittee lacked the controversy of the other two. H.R.2538, the Lytton Rancheria Homeland Act, places about 511 acres in trust for the Lytton Rancheria in California.

Chairperson Margie Mejia championed the measure as a means of righting a historical wrong because the tribe lost all of its land when it was terminated by the federal government. She said the tribe's “number one priority" was restoration of its homelands.

“This will provide for future generations to come and I think our written agreements show we are good neighbors,” said Mejia, who added that the tribe “doesn’t want to be in a community where we aren’t wanted or are a burden."

No one from Sonoma County was able to appear at the hearing. But officials there reached a land-into-trust agreement with the tribe and they maintain a much more positive relationship than the one seen in Santa Barbara Count.

A full committee markup on the three bills has not yet been scheduled.

Committee Notice:
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 1157, H.R. 2386, H.R. 2538 (June 17, 2015)

Related Stories:
Witness list for House hearing on tribal and Alaska Native bills (6/17)
House subcommittee sets hearing on tribal and Alaska Native bills (6/15)
House subcommittee hears views on tribal and Alaska Native bills (6/11)
House panel holds hearing on three tribal and Alaska Native bills (6/9)
House subcommittee sets June 10 hearing on three Indian bills (6/3)
NCAI responds to criticism from Rep. Young on land-into-trust (05/27)
Bryan Newland: Important context on land-into-trust process (5/20)
Rep. Young stirs questions in Indian Country in two hearings (05/18)
Rep. Torres issues statement on heated exchange at hearing (5/15)
House subcommittee hearing on land-into-trust turns heated (5/14)
Lytton Band plans big developments after reaching agreement (03/11)
Opponents not happy with land-into-trust bill for Chumash Tribe (03/05)
Chumash Tribe cheers introduction of land-into-trust measure (3/4)

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