John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, at the 74th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 16, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Leader of Bureau of Indian Affairs among witnesses for controversial tribal land bill

The Trump team's views on the federal government's trust and treaty responsibilities will get a public airing this week as lawmakers take testimony on a controversial tribal lands bill.

Indian Country has been extremely concerned about the new administration's agenda ever since President Donald Trump took office in January. From Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and his comments about an "off-ramp" for taking lands out of trust to a new rule that tribes say will make it harder for lands to be placed into trust, the messages coming from Washington, D.C., have raised alarms.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs will now get an opportunity to expand on tribal land issues at a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs on Wednesday afternoon. John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who serves as the "acting" Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs for the Trump team, will be testifying on H.R.215, the American Indian Empowerment Act.

The controversial bill allows tribes -- of their own choosing -- to have their lands taken out of trust and be placed in "restricted fee" status. Although Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the sponsor of H.R.215, believes the change in status will help tribes exercise more control over their homelands, few have openly supported his initiative, which dates back to 2011.

"The land will keep its immunity from civil regulation, state and local taxation, and likely state criminal jurisdiction," a hearing memo states.

During the Obama administration, the BIA actively opposed a prior version of the bill. Tahsuda's testimony could open the doors for a change in position.

"We understand that there is a need for jobs in Indian Country and this administration offers an important and encouraging opportunity for creative approaches for drawing businesses and economic development to our tribal communities," Tahsuda told the National Congress of American Indians last week as hundreds of tribal leaders gathered in Wisconsin for the organization's 74th annual conference. His official title in Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

When former president Barack Obama was in office, more than 500,000 acres was placed in trust for tribes through the land-into-trust process. More than 1.87 million acres was restored to tribal ownership through a separate initiative known as the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations.

The hearing on H.R.215 takes place at 2pm on Wednesday in Room 1324 of the Longworth House Office Building. The full witness list follows:

Mr. John Tahsuda III
Acting Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs
U.S. Department of the Interior
Washington, DC

The Honorable Jonathan Nez
Vice President
Navajo Nation
Window Rock, AZ

The Honorable J. Michael Chavarria
Santa Clara Pueblo
Española, NM

The Honorable Henry Cagey
Council Member, Lummi Nation
Representative, Tribal Economic Growth Alliance
Bellingham, WA

Mr. Cris Stainbrook
Indian Land Tenure Foundation
Little Canada, MN

Mr. Eric Henson
Executive Vice President, Compass Lexecon
Research Affiliate, Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development Tucson, AZ

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

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