Navajo Nation Council opposes land-into-trust reform measure

A view of the Navajo Nation Council chambers in Window Rock, Arizona. Photo from Facebook

Leaders of the second-largest tribe in the U.S. are opposing a bill that would reform the land-into-trust process at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

S.1879, the Interior Improvement Act, ensures that all tribes, regardless of the date of their federal recognition, can have their lands placed in trust. But delegates to the Navajo Nation Council said it goes too far by giving state and local governments a greater stake in the process.

"We do not support S. 1879, which would favor counties while undermining the sovereignty of tribes," Delegate Walter Phelps said in a press release.

S.1879 passed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last week despite protests from some Democrats who also raised concerns about opening up the process. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the panel's vice chairman, opposed the bill because he said it could lead to more litigation rather than resolve the uncertainties created by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar.

The Navajo council instead threw its support behind S.732, a different version of the fix that Tester introduced earlier this year. The bill offers a "clean" fix that does not address any other issues besides the technical language in the high court's February 2009 decision.

The committee in fact was poised to approve S.732 in late July. But Tester agreed to hold it back because Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the panel, introduced S.1879.

"It's possible you've found a way to move forward on this bill," Tester said at the time. Although he has since changed his views on S.1879, he did not prevent its passage last week.

The Navajo Nation Council's Naabik’iyátí’ Committee, or committee of the whole, passed Legislation No. 0394-15 last Thursday, a day after the Senate committee approved S.1879.

"S.1879 includes a number of additional conditions on the Secretary of the Interior in considering a tribe's application for land into trust most notably encouraging cooperative agreements with contiguous jurisdictions which includes any county, county equivalent, or Indian tribe with authority and control over land contiguous to the land under consideration in the application, and such additional considerations are not in the best interest of the Navajo Nation," Legislation No. 0394-15 states.

Committee Notice:
Business Meeting to Consider S. 1879 (December 2, 2015)

DOI Solicitor Opinion:
M-37029: The Meaning of "Under Federal Jurisdiction" for Purposes of the Indian Reorganization Act (March 12, 2014)

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