Leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes traveled from Montana to Washington, D.C., in 1935 for approval of the first constitution under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Photo: History.Com

House committee schedules another hearing on land-into-trust process

A key Congressional committee has scheduled a second hearing on the land-into-trust process only this time tribal leaders might actually be invited.

The House Committee on Natural Resources will meet next week to look at the Indian Reorganization Act. The witness list hasn't been posted online but tribal leaders complained about being left out of a prior hearing regarding a law whose purpose is to restore lands to tribal ownership.

“When they hold a Congressional hearing on the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act in a subcommittee that conducts oversights and investigations and does not do Indian policy, and when the hearing doesn't feature any tribal leader witnesses, whose interests are they really advancing?” President Brian Cladoosby of the National Congress of American Indians, which is the largest inter-tribal organization, asked at the organization's mid-year conference last month.

Cladoosby wasn't the only one who voiced concerns. Leaders of the Ute Tribe tied the earlier hearing to efforts by President Donald Trump to change how the federal government does business with Indian Country.

"We cannot allow Congress and the administration to attack the IRA and our trust lands by trying to rewrite history again," the tribe said in a statement last month.

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

With Republicans in control of Congress, and a Republican in the White House, tribes fear their trust lands, resources and sovereignty will be targeted in Washington. So far, there's little to indicate that will happen but comments from top officials at the Department of the Interior have fostered uncertainty.

In one of his first major speaking engagements after joining the Trump team, Secretary Ryan Zinke in early May suggested that some tribes are willing to have their lands taken out of trust and transferred to corporations. He described it as an "off-ramp" for Indian Country.

Just a few days later, one of his top aides was forced to "set the record straight" after those comments gained widespread attention. In a letter to NCAI, Jim Cason, who serves as the Associate Deputy Secretary at Interior, said Zinke "supports tribal self-determination, self-governance, and sovereignty, and believes the federal government should meet its trust responsibilities."

A month after that, Cason was still explaining the remarks. During NCAI's mid-year conference in Connecticut, he said Zinke was unfairly blamed for trying to revive the destructive federal policy of termination

"The secretary didn't mean termination," Cason told tribal leaders on June 13. "He wasn't trying to imply that."

In January 2016, the Bureau of Indian Affairs placed nearly 90,000 acres in trust for Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico in the largest single trust land acquisition in history Then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Isleta Pueblo Gov. Eddie Paul Torres Sr. are seen signing the documents for the acquisition. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

At the same time, Cason claimed that tribes are giving the administration mixed messages about their expectations. He said some want the BIA to "get out of the way" while others want the agency to exercise a stronger role in their communities, consistent with the government's treaty and trust responsibilities.

"We know, as a political matter, that if we go from where we are today to an ability [for tribes] to have complete and independent control over [their] resources, we’re gonna get thumped for promoting termination and we don't want to be there," Cason added.

"If there's a perception of termination, we gotta get rid of that," responded Ron Allen, the longtime chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe and the treasurer of NCAI.

Leaders like Allen are pressuring the new administration to make the land-into-trust process a priority. They note the BIA placed more than 500,000 acres in trust during the administration of Barack Obama, a Democrat.

"You already know all of that," Allen told Cason last month.

Former president Richard Nixon is seen with leaders of Taos Pueblo at the White House on July 8, 1970. Five months later, they were back in Washington, D.C., when Nixon signed a bill to return 48,000 acres of ancestral territory in New Mexico to the tribe. Photo: White House Press Office / Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

So far, neither Zinke nor Cason have committed to improving, streamlining or otherwise strengthening the land-into-trust process. Then again, neither has Congress -- efforts to address the U.S. Supreme Court decision Carcieri v. Salazar in a way that would reduce litigation and save taxpayer funds have gone nowhere in nearly a decade.

Next week's hearing takes place before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs. The panel, which has jurisdiction over tribal issues, has moved very slowly in the 115th Congress, advancing just a handful of Indian bills and holding even fewer hearings.

The July 13 hearing also boasts one of the committee's characteristically confusing and misleading titles -- "Comparing 21st Century Trust Land Acquisition with the Intent of the 73rd Congress in Section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act." The implication is that the BIA's current process does not match the goals of the 1934 law. Section 5 of the IRA authorized the land-into-trust process for tribes and individual Indians.

House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing "Comparing 21st Century Trust Land Acquisition with the Intent of the 73rd Congress in Section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act" (July 13, 2017)

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