Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation. Photo: Meagan Racey / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hearing on Indian Reorganization Act stacked with anti-Indian interests

If Indian Country is looking for a fair shake as a key Congressional committee looks into the land-into-trust process for a second time, it's not going to happen this week.

From the witness list to a memo prepared by Republican staff, a hearing on Thursday is stacked with anti-Indian interests. An attorney who will be providing testimony has even been compared to the Ku Klux Klan by Native leaders in Alaska.

Another witness comes from a town in Connecticut that has vehemently fought tribes on land, federal recognition and sovereignty issues. Then there's the Trump administration official who has repeatedly had to explain why the disastrous termination policy isn't on the table again.

That leaves Kirk Francis, the president of the United South and Eastern Tribes and the chief of the Penobscot Nation, in a potentially awkward situation. He's the only tribal leader who is appearing before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs for the hearing.

Still, the fact that a tribal leader is even on the witness list represents progress. The last time the Indian Reorganization Act came up, it was described as a law "gone astray" by a different subcommittee.

But to tribal advocates, it's the House Committee on Natural Resources that has lost direction. President Brian Cladoosby of the National Congress of American Indians said the panel has opened its doors to dangerous ideas aimed at weakening the trust and treaty responsibilities of the federal government.

“We are hearing the voices that are coming up that have been quiet in the last few years," Cladoosby said last month at NCAI's mid-year session, which coincidentally took place across the river from the Connecticut town whose mayor will be testifying. “They feel empowered by the last election and they are expressing their hateful and divisive rhetoric against tribes and tribal leaders.”

“Some of them mask their proposals in pro-tribal sovereignty rhetoric,” Cladoosby added. “But make no mistake, beneath that rhetoric are ominous intentions.”

The hearing memo is clear on those points. It describes the land-into-trust process as inherently unfair to states and local governments -- an argument repeatedly advanced by the town of Ledyard as it battled tribes and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in recent years.

"Section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 delegates to the Secretary of the Interior exceptionally broad authority to acquire land in trust for Indians," the document reads. "When the Secretary acquires land in trust for Indians, title to the land is legally owned by the federal government, thereby pre-empting state and local jurisdiction and opening the door to off-reservation gaming."

The memo also shows signs of influence from a top official at the Department of the Interior. Jim Cason, the Associate Deputy Secretary at the agency, has advanced the notion that the land-into-trust process conflicts with tribal sovereignty.

During the Bush administration, when he served in the same position, he said the BIA was reluctant to approve land-into-trust applications because it requires the federal government -- as a trustee -- to take on more responsibilities. He repeated a similar view when he spoke at a breakout session during NCAI's conference last month.

"I'm working very hard not to be a bottleneck in the process," Cason said as tribal leaders pressed him to explain the Trump team's policy on restoring their homelands.

Cason declined to give a clear answer. The committee's memo, on the other hand, embraces his line of thinking: Why should the BIA take on more trust lands when it lacks the "capacity" to keep up?

"For decades the Secretary has acquired land in trust regardless of the impact on other tribes, state and local governments, and landowners, and regardless of the capacity of the government to manage the trust lands," the memo reads.

The document does not offer a potential explanation for the BIA's limited capacity -- lack of resources. President Donald Trump wants to reduce the agency's budget by more than $300 million. Proposed cuts would come in trust land management, among other land and natural resource programs.

Since the start of the 115th Congress in January, the House Committee on Natural Resources has managed to clear just six pro-tribal bills. Including this week's hearing, the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs has met only five times to discuss Indian issues.

In comparison, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which is also controlled by Republicans but tends to operate in a bipartisan fashion, has held a slew of hearings, listening sessions and business meetings and has advanced nearly two dozen bills since January.

Thursday's hearing takes place at 10am Eastern and will be webcast by the House Committee on Natural Resources. The full witness list follows:
Mr. James Cason
Acting Deputy Secretary
U.S. Department of Interior
Washington, D.C.

The Honorable Kirk Francis
United South and Eastern Tribes
Washington, D.C

The Honorable Fred B. Allyn III
Mayor, Town of Ledyard
Ledyard, Connecticut

Mr. Donald Mitchell
Attorney at Law
Anchorage, Alaska

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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