Chumash Tribe wins dismissal of suit over status of reservation

Tribal leaders, from left to right: business committee member Mike Lopez, committee member Maxine Littlejohn, Chairman Vincent Armenta, Secretary/Treasurer Gary Pace and Vice Chair Kenneth Kahn. Photo from Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians

The homeland of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians in California will live to see another day.

A federal judge on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit that questioned the status of the reservation. Opponents claimed the land was not set aside in the early 1900s despite the existence of a deed establishing a "permanent" home for the tribe.

“This was yet another frivolous lawsuit brought on by the local tribal opponents,” Chairman Vincent Armenta said today. “Unfortunately, a small group of anti-tribal folks in the community have made it their mission in life to oppose our tribe on everything we do.”

Despite the dismissal of the case, Armenta doesn't believe the fight is over. Save the Valley, the group that filed the lawsuit in April, has been battling the tribe for more than a decade.

“Save the Valley tried to sue me and our legal representative Sam Cohen in July 2014,” Armenta said. “The case was dismissed in November 2014. The tribe prevailed then, we prevailed now and we will continue to prevail because truth is on our side.”

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

The group isn't only foe either. Some officials in Santa Barbara County refuse to treat the tribe as a sovereign government, a dispute that played out at a heated hearing last month in Washington, D.C.

"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," Steve Lavagnino, a member of the board of supervisors who wants to work with the tribe, told the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs on June 17.

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

The dispute centered on H.R.1157, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Mission Indians Land Transfer Act of 2015. The bill would place 1,400 acres in trust for the tribe, which plans to use the land primarily for housing.

"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, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman of the subcommittee, said. "This bothers me."

The Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the application for the land but Save the Valley and Santa Barbara County are challenging the decision before the Interior Board of Indian Appeals. The bill, if enacted, would save the tribe and the Obama administration from devoting time and resources to the effort, which could lead to litigation in federal court if the opponents don't agree with the outcome of the proceeding.

The lawsuit that was dismissed yesterday didn't name the BIA as a defendant even though it challenged a deed held by the federal government on behalf of the tribe. That was one of the reasons why Judge R. Gary Klausner said the case could not proceed.

"Because the United States has not consented to jurisdiction in this case, it cannot be joined as a party," Klausner wrote in the six-page decision.

Save the Valley instead named the tribe and its leaders, including Chairman Armenta, as defendants. But Klausner said the tribal defendants enjoy sovereign immunity.

"Sovereign immunity is not limited to an Indian tribe alone, but also extends to tribal officers operating in their official capacity within the scope of their authority," the decision stated.

Related Stories:
Editorial: County stonewalling Chumash Tribe on development (06/26)
Lawmakers slam county for poor dealings with Chumash Tribe (06/18)
The Canary: Guess what guys - the Chumash Tribe was here first (06/18)
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)
Chumash Tribe legal team 'laughed' at suit over casino expansion (04/09)
Opponents not happy with land-into-trust bill for Chumash Tribe (03/05)
Chumash Tribe cheers introduction of land-into-trust measure (3/4)
Opinion: Let's rethink federal policy toward tribal sovereignty (02/19)
Vincent Armenta: You can't rewrite tribes and tribal sovereignty (02/09)
Eldon Shiffman: Give Chumash Tribe a chance to reclaim its land (02/02)
Luis Alejo: Apologize to the Chumash Tribe for 'hurtful' remarks (1/30)
County files appeal over Chumash Tribe land-into-trust decision (1/27)
Opinion: Wealthy tribes shouldn't follow land-into-trust process (1/26)
Chumash Tribe slams official for questioning 'reservation system' (01/16)
Chumash Tribe welcomes approval of land-into-trust application (01/08)

Join the Conversation
Trending in News
More Headlines