A view of the Lytton Rancheria's land-into-trust site in Sonoma County, California. Photo: Lytton Residential Development Environmental Assessment

House approves land-into-trust bills for tribes amid concerns about process

Despite a rocky couple of days on Capitol Hill for tribal interests, it wasn't all bad news this week for Indian Country.

Ahead of a heated hearing about the land-into-trust process, the House passed three bills to benefit tribes in Arizona, California and Oregon. Ironically, all of the bills contained land-into-trust provisions.

The bills were also considered non-controversial. They each passed the chamber on Tuesday under a suspension of the rules, meaning no one objected to them.

And of the tribes that benefit from the bills, lawmakers pointed out that many were victims of bad federal policies like abrogated treaties, forced removals and termination. While their government-to-government relationships were eventually restored by the United States, they had already lost all of their homelands.

"For over a hundred years federal policies have unfairly disadvantaged Indian tribes in Western Oregon," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), the sponsor of H.R.1306, the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act. Provisions in the bill place about 17,519 acres in trust for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians and about 14,,472 acres in trust for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians while others address land management issues for the Coquille Tribe.

"After signing many treaties with the tribes, the United States removed them from their original homelands and put them on only two reservations -- established to house potentially more than 60 tribal governments," he continued. "In 1954, Congress made things even worse. All tribes west of the Cascades lost federal recognition when the Western Oregon Termination Act became law."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: U.S. House of Representatives Consideration of Three Indian Bills. July 11, 2017

But just two days after those remarks, members of the House Committee on Natural Resources -- including the sponsor of another bill that cleared the chamber -- listened as some hostile witnesses attempted to undermine some basic premises of the federal trust relationship. Certain tribes were "created" out of thin air, one alleged. Even the most "wealthiest" of tribes are getting their lands placed in trust, another charged.

Several lawmakers didn't take too kindly to those suggestions. Although the level of displeasure was more pronounced on the Democratic side of the dais, some Republicans also voiced concerns.

"This process is critical for resolving past injustices and promoting tribal self-sufficiency," said Rep. Jeff Denham (R-California), the sponsor of H.R.597, the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act. The bill places about 940 acres in trust for the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, whose gaming earnings have enabled the tribe to slowly recover its land base in northern California.

The third bill approved on Tuesday was H.R.1404, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Land Conveyance Act. The measure places about 40 acres in Arizona in trust for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, whose government-to-government relationship was restored by Congress in 1978.

“We must do right by our tribal communities, and we must ensure that tribes are treated with the fairness and dignity they rightfully deserve, that their input is heard in the process, and that land acquisition for tribes remains a priority for our nation,” Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), the top Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, said on Thursday.

The three bills approved this week await action in the Senate. Since the start of the 115th in Congress, lawmakers have yet to send a stand-alone Indian bill to President Donald Trump for his signature..

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