The Tanasi Memorial in Tennessee marks the site of the Cherokee Nation capital in the early 1700s. Photo: Brian Stansberry

Yet another tribal homelands measure slated for action on Capitol Hill

With land-into-trust in limbo under the Trump administration, tribes continue to turn to their allies on Capitol Hill for assistance.

Since the start of the 115th Congress in January 2017, the House has passed five tribal homelands measures. A sixth is slated for action on Monday -- H.R.146, the Eastern Band Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will see the return of ancestral lands in Tennessee if the bill becomes law. H.R.146 being considered under a suspension of the rules, according to the Majority Leader's calendar, meaning it is non-controversial.

"This is a long process, and many people have helped along the way," Chief Richrd Sneed said in a post on Facebook in January, when the bill cleared a markup session. "Upon completion, the historic Cherokee overhill towns of Chota and Tanasi will once again belong to our people."

The lands in the bill include the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum and the Chota Memorial, which marks the site of an original Cherokee council house, as well as the Tanasi Memorial, where the Cherokee Nation capital was once located. Also included is the grave of Oconostota, who was the First Beloved Man of the Cherokee people from 1775 to 1781.

The lands are currently part of the Tellico Reservoir, a federally-managed site. Local support for transferring them to the tribe has been strong, said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tennessee), the sponsor of H.R.146,

"I remain steadfast in my dedication to protecting the historic home of the Cherokee Indians and promoting the economic development of the region," Fleischmann said in a statement after the House Committee on Natural Resources approved his bill on January 17.

Chief Richard Sneed of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, left at table, appeared before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs in Washington, D.C., on October 4, 2017. Photo: Chief Sneed

The move comes as the Trump administration considers controversial changes to the land-into-trust process that tribes say will make it all but impossible to restore their homelands, especially those away from existing reservations. That's the case with the Eastern Cherokees, whose present-day headquarters in North Carolina are more than 80 miles from Tellico.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs held off on the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151) after tribes trashed the proposal last fall. But consultations resumed earlier this year in spite of the outrage.

By going through the cumbersome land-into-trust process, which often takes years, tribes are "getting back what was once theirs. They are reacquiring cultural and sensitive homelands that are a part of their culture, their history, their people," attorney and professor Robert Saunooke said at a BIA consultation in February. Though Saunooke is an Eastern Cherokee citizen, he noted that wasn't speaking on behalf of the tribe.

The last consultation took place on Thursday but potential changes are still a long ways away. The BIA is accepting written comments through June 30 and there is no guarantee that the rule will advance.

In the meantime, the Trump administration has continued to process land-into-trust applications. The BIA even approved one for the Shawnee Tribe, for a site more than 400 miles from its headquarters in Oklahoma.

“One of my top priorities for the Department of the Interior is to make tribal sovereignty meaningful, and that includes providing the basis for tribes to build and strengthen their economies,” Secretary Ryan Zinke said on January 19, just two days after the Eastern Cherokee bill cleared the markup on Capitol Hill.

But tribal advocates say the pace is far slower than that seen during the Obama era. Between 2009 and the end of 2017, more than 500,000 acres was restored to tribal ownership through the land-into-trust process. During the same time, another 1.87 million acres were restored through the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations, which the new administration has slowed down as the money for it runs out.

“In its first year, the Trump administration’s Interior Department, under Ryan Zinke, has accepted title to a tiny fraction of that total, and there is concern that the future may look more like the George W. Bush unofficial moratorium,” attorney Judith Shapiro wrote in Trouble with Trump?, an article in the 2018 issue of Tribal Government Gaming.

Since January 2017, the House has passed five tribal homelands bills. The list follows:
H.R.1491, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Land Affirmation Act. The bill ratifies a decision to place about 1,400 acres in California in trust for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.
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.
H.R.597, the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act. The bill places about 940 acres in trust for the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians in northern California.
H.R.1404, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Land Conveyance Act. The bill places about 40 acres in Arizona in trust for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.
H.R.1532, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Land Reaffirmation Act. The bill confirms that lands already held in trust for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians cannot be litigated.

Of the five bills, H.R.1306 was signed into law in January. The others await action in the Senate.

Debate on on H.R.146, the Eastern Band Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act, takes place on Monday afternoon. A voice vote is expected in the evening.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Bill to restore Eastern Cherokee homelands moves forward in Congress (January 18, 2018)
Eastern Cherokees see strong support for Tennessee land-into-trust bill (January 10, 2018)
House subcommittee schedules hearing on bill affecting Indian land in Oklahoma (October 3, 2017)
Rep. Don Young vows quick action on tribal tourism and Eastern Cherokee bills (February 25, 2016)