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NCAI President Brian Cladoosby urges support for land-into-trust bill

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: State of Indian Nations 2016

National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby ticked off a list of legislative successes during the State of Indian Nations on Thursday as he acknowledged that one big item was missing.

A fix to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar would reduce litigation and ensure that all tribes are treated fairly when it comes to the land-into-trust process, Cladoosby said at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. But with another anniversary of the February 2009 ruling fast approaching, Indian Country has yet to see concrete action.

"This will be seven years now that NCAI has been working this issue on the Hill," Cladoosby said.

Cladoosby noted that tribes have long been pushing for a "clean" fix to ensure that everyone can benefit from the land-into-trust process at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Obama administration also supports a simple change to the Indian Reorganization Act, the 1934 law that set a policy to restore the tribal land base.

Livestream: State of Indian Nations 2016

A clean fix, however, lacks sufficient votes in Congress as some lawmakers and even some tribes have injected gaming into the debate and have called for limits on new land acquisitions.

"They've tried to muddy the waters," Cladoosby admitted.

With that in mind, Cladoosby called on tribes to take a second look at the S.1879, the Interior Improvement Act. The bill -- which cleared the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last month despite objections from Democrats -- goes beyond a clean fix and gives states and local governments a greater role in the process.

"Believe me -- it's not a perfect bill," Cladoosby said. "It doesn't get tribes where they want to be [with] a clean fix but I believe it's a bill that the majority of tribes in the U.S. can get behind."

National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby delivers the State of Indian Nations in Washington, D.C., on January 14, 2016. Photo from EPA American Indian Environmental Office / Facebook

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee, introduced the measure in July. He defended his decision to go beyond a clean fix, citing a lack of support for that option on Capitol Hill.

"Which is why we worked to develop the Interior Improvement Act," Barrasso said during a business committee meeting on December 2, 2015.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the committee, wasn't convinced, though. By including other provisions addressing the BIA's handling of land-into-trust applications, he said the bill might lead to more uncertainty.

"Right now, I am not convinced that this approach will reduce litigation," Tester said at the meeting. "In fact, it may even increase litigation."

Native women and their supporters rallied at the U.S. Supreme Court on December 7, 2015, as the justices heard Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a tribal jurisdiction case. Photo by Indianz.Com

Opening the door to state and local governments is indeed a controversial idea in Indian Country. The Navajo Nation Council, which represents the second-largest tribe in the U.S., opposes S.1879 for that reason.

"We do not support S. 1879, which would favor counties while undermining the sovereignty of tribes," Delegate Walter Phelps said last month.

The Carcieri case only addressed one land-into-trust application submitted by the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island. The court determined that the Narragansetts weren't "under federal jurisdiction" when the IRA became law in 1934. The tribe gained formal recognition of its status in 1983.

Opponents -- mainly state and local governments but also private citizens, groups and even some tribes -- have used the ruling to attack other land-into-trust applications across the nation. While most of those efforts have not succeeded, they have placed more burdens on the BIA, an agency that already suffers from underfunding.

"It started in the Northeast with the Narragansett Tribe but it has graduated all across the country," said Lance Gumbs, a member of the Shinnecock Nation of New York, said at the State of Indian Nations. "It is affecting tribes' ability to get land into trust. We all know in Indian Country that one of the most important things for tribes is to reacquire lands."

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