Leaders of the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, from left: Seminole Nation Chief Leonard M. Harjo, Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton, Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker, Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby and Muscogee (Creek) Nation Chief James Floyd. Photo: Chief Bill John Baker

House subcommittee schedules hearing on bill affecting Indian land in Oklahoma

The House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs is taking testimony on three tribal bills, including one of significant interest in Oklahoma.

Under a law known as the Stigler Act of 1947, citizens of the Cherokee Nation, the Chickasaw Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Seminole Nation are treated differently than other Indian landowners. They must possess at least one-half Indian blood in order for their allotments to be held in "restricted fee" status.

The "restricted fee" status is important because it protects the allotments from state and local taxation, regulation and jurisdiction. It also makes it harder for non-Indian entities to acquire those lands.

But the Stigler Act forces Five Civilized Tribes allotments to be converted to "fee" status when an owner's blood quantum falls below the one-half standard. The change takes place regardless of the owner's wishes and the citizenship standards of his or her respective tribe.

As a result, these land interests are subject to taxation and alienation, according to a hearing memo on H.R.2606. Additionally, leasing, probate and other activities affecting the lands are handled in state court.

In nearly every other instance, such actions would be overseen in federal court, something that's happening in a closely-watched trespass dispute elsewhere in Oklahoma.

H.R.2606 changes the situation once and for all by removing the blood quantum requirement in the Stigler Act. It does not otherwise affect the citizenship standards of the five tribes.

“Introducing this amendment to the Stigler Act will allow for past precedent to be current with the realities of Native-owned, restricted land,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), who is a Chickasaw citizen, said in a press release in May when he unveiled H.R.2606.

“Many of Oklahoma’s citizens have passed out of ½ blood lineage, but remain vested to their Native American heritage,” Cole said. “Removing the ½ blood degree prerequisite and expanding its range to any degree will help preserve the rights and legacy of Native American tribes and their inheritance.”

Leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes have been asking Congress to eliminate the blood quantum requirement for decades. Chief Bill John Baker of the Cherokee Nation will be testifying in favor of H.R.2606 at the subcommittee's hearing on Wednesday.

The Stigler Act is a "federal mandate that forces the state of Oklahoma to act as instrumentalities of the federal government, yet no other groups of Indian tribes are forced to have land title decisions made by any state of the union," the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes said in a 2015 resolution in favor of removing the blood quantum requirement.

Despite support from the tribes, prior efforts to address the situation have faced opposition from some politicians in Oklahoma. They have acted based on complaints from the energy industry.

In addition to H.R.2606, H.R.146, the Eastern Band Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act, is on the agenda. The bill places about 96 acres in trust for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The properties are located at the Tellico Reservoir in Tennessee and include significant sites such as the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum and the grave of Oconostota, the First Beloved Man of the Cherokee people from 1775 to 1781.

The third item on the agenda is H.R.2402, the San Juan County Settlement Implementation Act. The bill includes provisions that address land issues for the Navajo Nation.

The hearing takes place at 2pm Eastern on Wednesday in Room 1334 of the Longworth House Office Building. The witness list follows:
Mr. Richard Sneed
Principal Chief
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
Cherokee, NC

Mr. Russell Begaye
Navajo Nation
Window Rock, AZ

Mr. Bill John Baker
Principal Chief
Cherokee Nation
Tahlequah, OK

House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing on 3 Tribal Bills (October 4, 2017)

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