In 1911, during the height of the allotment era, the U.S. Department of the Interior was promoting "Indian Land For Sale" under then-Secretary Walter L. Fisher and Robert G. Valentine, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The allotment policy was repudiated by Congress in 1934 through the Indian Reorganization Act. Fisher coincidentally died the following year.

House subcommittee takes up controversial American Indian Empowerment Act

A controversial Indian lands bill that faced repeated opposition during the Obama administration is seeing new life in the Trump era.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has introduced the American Indian Empowerment Act in every session of Congress dating back to 2011. But the bills never went anywhere due to lukewarm support from Indian Country and outright opposition from the Obama administration.

Despite the lack of success, Young is back at it again H.R.215. The bill, which was introduced on January 3, would allow tribes to have their lands taken out of trust and placed in "restricted fee" status.

Young believes the change in status will allow tribes to exercise greater control over their lands because they won't necessarily have to seek approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to develop or lease those lands. At the same time, keeping the lands in "restricted fee" status will protect them from state and local encroachments.

"We're supposed to be a sovereign nation," Chairman Darrell Seki of the Red Lake Nation said at a breakout session during the National Congress of American Indians annual conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Tuesday. "Yet, everything we do, we have to get it approved by the BIA. Why is that?"

But while the bill states that "Nothing ... shall be construed to diminish the federal trust responsibility to any Indian tribe," there's a new factor to consider in any debate these days: President Donald Trump. Already, his administration has erected hurdles in the cumbersome land-into-trust process and is proposing to add even more steps to the process.

Secretary Ryan Zinke, the leader of the Department of the Interior, even suggested that tribes might be interested in an "off-ramp" for their trust lands. As a result, any efforts to change how Indian lands are treated by the federal government are being treated with a high degree of skepticism.

"What the heck is this?" Arlen Melendez, the chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said at a BIA listening session in Milwaukee on Monday, when the Trump administration's proposed land rules were roundly trashed. "Is this a mini-Dawes Act that's being proposed here?"

The Dawes Act was the federal law that led to the loss of 90 million acres of tribal territory during the disastrous allotment era. To address the harmful effects of that period, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934 to promote the restoration of tribal homelands.

H.R.215 might not be the Dawes Act, or even the new Indian Reorganization Act, but it's been granted a hearing for the first time since 2012. The House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs will be taking testimony on the bill next Wednesday, October 25. A witness list hasn't been posted online yet.

House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing on Indian Lands Bill (October 25, 2017)

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