Inter-tribal dispute over land in New Mexico aired at hearing

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates, left, testifies at House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs hearing on July 15, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

Tribes and lawmakers clash over former military site
By Andrew Bahl
Indianz.Com Staff Writer

Controversy brewed as the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs heard testimony on three bills on Wednesday.

The fire centered on H.R.1028, the Return of Certain Lands At Fort Wingate to The Original Inhabitants Act. The bill attempts to rectify a decades-long dispute over the division of the defunct Fort Wingate Army Depot in New Mexico between the Navajo Nation and Zuni Pueblo.

Rep. Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico), the sponsor of the bill, said the tribes agreed to an equal division of more than 5,000 acres at the site during Congressionally-monitored negotiations in 2013. Leaders of Zuni Pueblo have stuck by the arrangement while those from the Navajo Nation have not.

“Neither the tribes nor Congress can risk further delay without running the risk of the land being returned to the government for disposal,” Pearce told the subcommittee. “When good faith parties came to negotiate the settlement, we should count that as something. Otherwise we will never … get the parties to come together.”

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs Legislative Hearing on H.R. 1028, H.R. 2684, H.R. 2733

Those comments drew a seemingly-angry response from Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-California), the ranking member of the subcommittee. He questioned why Pearce continues to rely on an agreement that does not appear to be binding on either tribe.

He also told Pearce that “your smart-ass comments are not welcome here.”

Zuni Gov. Val Panteah did not participate in those earlier talks. Nevertheless, he said the tribe continues to support the agreement encoded in H.R.1028.

“This issue has dragged on for too long,” Panteah testified. “We cannot let our personal views, political concerns, or our views of history push us to extreme positions and re-open old wounds."

"We need to realize that our common interests far outweigh our differences and look at ways that we can mutually benefit by cooperating as neighbors," Panteah added. "We can start that cooperation by implementing the agreement our predecessors worked out three years ago.”

Leaders from Zuni Pueblo toured the Fort Wingate Army Depot in 2011. Photo from Fort Wingate Depot Activity

The Obama administration also supports the measure. Michael Smith, the deputy director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the lands at Fort Wingate retain cultural and historical significance for both tribes.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates, however, condemned the proposal. He reiterated that the tribe has a new set of leaders -- President Russell Begaye was inaugurated in May, months after the bill was introduced in February.

“We are eager to see a resolution to this matter and to begin utilizing the land,” Bates said. “We have committed to reach out to the Zuni Pueblo leadership to continue our discussions and reach a conclusion that both tribes can agree to. Unfortunately, our requests to meet the Zuni Pueblo leadership have gone unanswered.”

The main problem for the Navajo Nation, Bates said, is the lack of a gaming prohibition in the bill. The tribe operates the Fire Rock Casino just down the road from Fort Wingate and fears Zuni Pueblo might use its share of the land for a rival facility.

"The legislation as drafted could create chaos with regards to tribal gaming," Bates told lawmakers.

Members of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs at the hearing. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman of the subcommittee, was part of the 2013 talks and is a co-sponsor of the bill. He warned t the tribes that they could lose the land altogether if they fail to reach an agreement. “I’m not going to let this land go back to the armed forces," Young said. "You’re going to take what we’re going to give you and be happy."

Young added that his “intent is to go forth with this piece of legislation ... because this delay has gone on and on.”

Despite Bates's claim that Zuni leaders have not responded to requests to meet, Panteah said he was willing to come back to the negotiating table, possibly with an independent facilitator. But Panteah insisted that the Navajo Nation send an official with the authority to bind the tribe to any agreement that might be reached.

The other two bills taken up yesterday generated far less controversy. H.R.2684, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas Equal and Fair Opportunity Settlement Act, extinguishes a long-running land claim for the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas in an exchange for recognition of its gaming rights.

Some of the land taken from the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe now lies within the Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas. Photo from National Park Service

"Federally-recognized tribes throughout the United States with gaming operations as a source of revenue have the means to offset these dwindling government funding sources," Vice Chairman Ronnie Thomas testified. "This permits these tribes to continue to provide for the housing, healthcare, education, and other needs of their members."

Smith of the BIA said the Obama administration supports the bill as long as language is added to clarify the tribe would be subject to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. That law was passed a year after the tribe was restored to federal recognition.

The other bill was H.R.2733, the Nevada Native Nations Lands Act. It places land in trust for the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, the Shoshone Paiute Tribes, the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe.

“Our tribes’ membership numbers are growing and the carrying capacity of our current lands is very limited,” Reno-Sparks Chairman Arlan Melendez said. “It is only by being able to expand and consolidate our lands for housing, development, and preservation that our tribes and cultural practices can continue to thrive.”

A view of the Summit Lake Paiute Reservation in Nevada. Photo by Ken Lund / Flickr

A similar version of the bill cleared the House last year. But the Senate never took it up.

"I won't editorialize on things going through the House versus the Senate," said Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nevada), who introduced the measure last month. "We'll just say, let's give the Senate another chance to process this bill."

The Obama administration supports the bill, Smith said, noting that some of the land in question was the habitat of the greater sage grouse, a bird that could be classified as an endangered species. He offered some minor changes to address that issue for the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe.

Committee Notice:
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 1028, H.R. 2684, H.R. 2733 (July 15, 2015)

Related Stories
Witness list for House subcommittee's hearing on tribal bills (7/14)
House subcommittee schedules hearing on three tribal measures (7/13)

Join the Conversation
Trending in News
More Headlines