Almost three years ago, leaders of the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians appeared before a House committee to lobby for their homelands bills. They are finally getting a shot in the Senate. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs takes up tribal homelands legislation

After years of work in California and on Capitol Hill, two tribes are finally getting another chance to present their homelands bills.

The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians first appeared together at a hearing in the House almost three years ago. It wasn't an entirely pretty affair, with members of Congress vowing to take action to help the tribes amid threats of litigation and other opposition.

After achieving success in the other chamber and negotiating agreements back home, the tribes are coming back together on Wednesday afternoon, this time before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The situation is looking somewhat more favorable, though hurdles remain.

The Lytton Band was one of the many victims of the termination era, having lost its federal status -- and all of its lands in the northern part of the state -- in 1961. The tribe was restored to recognition through court action in 1991 and has been slowly rebuilding its community.

Renderings of a community center and housing being proposed by the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians. Images: Homeland for Lytton

H.R.597, the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act, assists with that effort. It places about 511 acres in trust for the tribe in Sonoma County, where its reservation was once located and where housing and other developments are in the works.

"Taking this land into trust will allow the tribe to construct, with its own funds, housing and community facilities," Chairwoman Margie Mejia said in prior testimony on the bill. "This will allow the tribe to live as a community for the first time in over 50 years."

H.R.597 cleared the House last July. It was considered non-controversial and was passed under a suspension of the rules.

"By directing these lands into trust, the United States will ensure that the Lytton Rancheria will finally have a permanently protected homeland on which they can, once again, live communally and plan for future generations," Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-California) said during consideration of the bill on July 11.

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians land-into-trust site, also known as Camp 4, in Santa Barbara County, California. Photo: Chumash Facts

Further south in California, the Santa Ynez Band is dealing with land issues of its own. The 99-acre reservation, established in 1901, doesn't have enough suitable space to accommodate the tribe and its citizens.

"Unfortunately, building additional homes on our existing reservation is not possible," Vincent Armenta, the tribe's former longtime chairman, said at the same hearing where the Lytton Band appeared almost three years ago. "The majority of our reservation land is already developed and the remaining is in a creek bed or on a sloped hillside."

To build for the future, H.R.1491, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Land Affirmation Act, places about 1,400 acres in trust for the tribe. Plans call for housing and other infrastructure on a parcel known locally as Camp 4.

"With the various things that have happened to them, such as derecognition and decertification over the years, tribes end up on very small, narrow parcels of land that make it very difficult for them to grow and prosper," Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California), the sponsor of the bill, said when it cleared the House, also under a suspension of the rules, on November 28.

Though both bills were considered non-controversial in the House, the tribes have faced local opposition, some of it incredibly intense. As a result, the Lytton bill incorporates an agreement with Sonoma County that address land use and other issues. The measure also contains prohibitions on gaming, one permanent and the other based on time.

The Chumash bill also incorporates an agreement with Santa Barbara County, one that was reached only after significant effort. H.R.1491 includes a permanent prohibition on gaming as well.

Both tribes have gone through the land-into-trust process for their respective homelands. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has approved the application for the Lytton Band, as well as the one for the Santa Ynez Band, but local opposition could hold up final action for years. Congressional action places the tribes on more solid ground.

Despite the work, tribal homelands bills have somewhat stalled in the Senate, where only one such bill has cleared the chamber since the start of the 115th Congress in January 2017. In comparison, the House has passed six.

Wednesday's hearing takes place at 2:30pm Eastern and will be broadcast on the committee's website. The witness list follows:
Mr. Darryl LaCounte
Acting Deputy Bureau Director, Office of Trust Services
Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior

The Honorable Kenneth Kahn
Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, Santa Ynez, CA

The Honorable Marjorie Mejia
Lytton Rancheria of California, Santa Rosa, CA

The Honorable Mike Healy
City of Petaluma, Petaluma, CA

Mr. William “Bill” Krauch
Santa Ynez Valley Coalition, Los Olivos, CA

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing to Consider H.R. 597 & H.R. 1491 (April 25, 2018)

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