Dancers at Ohkay Owingeh in northern New Mexico. Photo: Larry Lamsa

Pueblo tribes welcome action on bill to boost economic development

Another Indian bill will soon be crossing the desk of President Donald Trump and it's one that seemed doomed just a couple of months ago.

Provisions in S.2850, which cleared its final hurdle in Congress on Monday, benefit two tribes in northern New Mexico. Once the measure is signed into law, Ohkay Owingeh and the Pueblo of Santa Clara will be able to lease their lands for extended periods of time, boosting economic development opportunities in their communities.

“Passage of this legislation allows Ohkay Owingeh to lease our lands for various projects for up to 99 years, which will give Ohkay Owingeh more opportunities and provide more stability than the current 25 year limit does,” Governor Peter Garcia, Jr. said on Wednesday.

“Santa Clara Pueblo has lost business opportunities with major companies because we could only lease our lands for a limited period," Governor Michael Chavarria pointed out.

The relatively simple change has long been considered non-controversial. Congress, in fact, has enacted similar extensions for at least 50 tribes since the passage of the Long-Term Leasing Act in 1955.

“Tribes should be able to determine the duration of tribal leases on their own lands, particularly as business opportunities change over time, to maximize economic development and provide for their communities,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and the sponsor of the Pueblo bill, which he had introduced in the 115th Congress as S.249.

The Trump administration jumped on board too. S.249 was one of the first pieces of Indian legislation supported by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke after he took office in March 2017.

"Secretary Zinke supports the principles of self-determination and self-governance and, in line with these principles, believes that tribal governments are in the best position to determine the duration of tribal leases such as these," Bruce Loudermilk, then-director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs., said in testimony on the bill last summer.

There's More: Indian legislation in the Trump era

But after S.249 passed the Senate without incident in May 2017, the outlook got muddier in the other chamber. Rather than take up the measure on its own, Republicans in the House tied it to S.140, another relatively non-controversial vehicle to help the White Mountain Apache Tribe complete a critical drinking water project on its reservation in neighboring Arizona.

Normally that wouldn't be such a big deal. But GOP leaders also threw in Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, a much more controversial bill that Democrats saw as a threat to the rights of workers in Indian Country.

So while the S.140 easily cleared the Republican-controlled House by large margins and even secured some Democratic support, it needed to return to the Senate for another vote after being modified. In the more closely-divided body, the bill didn't survive.

"Let there be no mistake: Indian Country loses when we give in to partisan rancor," Udall said in April after Democrats voted in block to stop the bill. Udall, however, was one of the few members of his party who supported movement on the measure.

But rather than let Pueblo and Apache tribes suffer from the setback, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), who was the sponsor of S.140, revived their bills with S.2850. He welcomed final action on the bill, which he introduced in May, as a recognition of self-determination.

“I am pleased that my colleagues approved this common sense legislation, which helps to ensure settlement funds may be used by the tribe to best serve their people and improve their communities,” Flake said of the provisions benefiting the White Mountain Apaches.

Indian legislation in the Trump era
Since the start of the 115th Congress in January, lawmakers have sent five Indian bills to President Trump. He has signed four so far into law.

H.R.228, the Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Consolidation Act. Signed on December 18, 2017, the new law makes a popular tribal economic development program permanent.

H.R.1306, the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act. Signed on January 8, 2018, the new law helps the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians and the Coquille Tribe with issues affecting their homelands.

H.R.984, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act. Signed on January 29, the new law extended federal recognition to six tribes in Virginia. Although their status became official upon signing, the tribes were added to the list of federally recognized entities this week.

S.1285, the Oregon Tribal Economic Development Act. Signed on June 1, the new law helps the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians improve their economies by resolving land and leasing issues.

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