Secretary Zinke advocates 'off-ramp' for taking lands out of trust

National Conference of State Legislatures on YouTube: Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke Keynote at National Tribal Energy Summit

UPDATE: The video of Secretary Zinke's remarks has been posted on YouTube. The comments on trust lands begin around 3:12 into the video.
-- Posted May 4, 2017

The new leader of the Department of the Interior believes tribes should be able to exercise more control over their lands.

But comments Secretary Ryan Zinke made at a summit in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday are puzzling, or at least not well developed. On one hand, he appears to advocate for the model used in Alaska, in which Native lands were divided up and transferred to corporations.

On the other hand, a similar model was used in the lower 48 states, during the termination era. Tribes lost their federal recognition and their assets were transferred to corporations.

"Is there an off-ramp? If tribes would have a choice of leaving Indian trust lands and becoming a corporation, tribes would take it," Zinke said at the National Tribal Energy Summit, according to the blog of the National Conference of State Legislatures, which co-sponsored the event.

Regardless of the thought behind Zinke's remarks, it's not clear whether tribes would accept the "choice" he presented. Termination resulted in disaster for those affected and even former Republican president Richard Nixon repudiated it in his message to Congress in 1970 that serves as the basis for modern federal Indian policy.

As for Alaska, regional and village corporations are unable to exercise sovereignty over their territory in a manner comparable to tribes in the lower 48. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alaska v. Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government confirmed that Native corporation lands are not Indian Country.

Alaska Native regional and village corporations are not tribal governments, either, although Congress has treated them in a similar fashion through various laws. The federal government recognizes more than 220 tribes in Alaska and they finally secured the right to follow the land-into-trust process during the Obama administration.

According to the NCSL posting, Zinke prefaced his comments by talking about the Indian Reorganization Act. The 1934 law put an end to the allotment of Indian lands -- another disastrous federal policy that limited the ability of tribes to exercise sovereignty over their territory.

The IRA also authorized the Bureau of Indian Affairs to place lands in trust for tribes and individual Indians through the fee-to-trust process. The goal was to restore the 90 million acres that fell out of Indian hands during the allotment era between 1887 and 1934.

Only about 8 percent of lands that were lost during allotment have been restored since 1934, according to the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal organization in the U.S.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said it will post the full recording of the summit on its website.

Read More on the Story:
Interior Secretary Pledges Advocacy for Tribes (National Conference of State Legislatures Blog 5/2)

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