The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe leads a march from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., to the U.S. Capitol on November 14, 2018, Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

'Termination is here': Tribes rally against Trump administration

By Acee Agoyo

Tribal leaders are calling on Congress to repudiate the Trump administration in light of recent decisions that undermine the federal government's relationship with Indian Country.

From protecting their homelands to providing health care for their citizens, tribes are confronting unprecedented challenges to their sovereignty. Many believe the policy developments from Washington, D.C., mark a return to the dark and devastating days of the termination era.

"Termination is here," Rob Sanderson Jr., a leader of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes from Alaska, asserted during a rally at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. "It's alive."

The most glaring example of the shift in winds is the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose ancestors welcomed some of the first European settlers to the Americas nearly 400 years ago. Despite that long history, the Trump administration does not believe the People of the First Light are entitled to trust lands.

"The threat is real about us losing our homelands," Chairman Cedric Cromwell said after his tribe led a march from the nearby National Museum of the American Indians to the Capitol building.

Vice Chair Jessie "Little Doe" Baird, who won a prestigious "genius grant" for her Wôpanâak language preservation efforts, highlighted the irony of the Trump administration's decision that paves the way for her tribe's reservation in Massachusetts to be taken out of trust. During the early 1900s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was more than willing to assert a relationship with her people, she said.

"They came for our children and took them to Carlisle because we were 'too Indian," Baird said, referring to the infamous boarding school in Pennsylvania where thousands of Indian children were sent after being taken from their communities. "Today, they tell us we are not Indian enough."

But the Mashpee people aren't alone in dealing with challenges to their ancestral territories. Without warning, the Trump administration in late June put a stop to all land-into-trust decisions in Alaska even though a federal appeals court ruled that tribes in the state were unfairly excluded from the process for decades.

"Our brothers and sisters from Alaska are under attack," Cromwell pointed out. In addition to Sanderson from Tlingit and Haida, Clinton Lageson, the treasurer of the Kenaitze Tribe, was present at the rally to call attention to the dangers facing tribal homelands.

And there are troubling signs from other federal agencies, according to tribal leaders. Aaron Payment, the vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, said the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and even the Department of Health and Human Services, home to the Indian Health Service, are starting to question their trust and treaty responsibilities, which are ground in relationships between political sovereigns.

"We are not race-based, we are political entities," said Payment, who also serves as chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Of the shifts in federal policy, he said: "They are trying to get out of the trust and treaty relationship."

"This administration's policy is termination," Payment added. "We are now in a termination era."

With the threats front and center, tribes believe Congress represents their best hope for holding the Trump administration accountable. Passage of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act would stop the ongoing assault.

"We shouldn't have to be doing this but we're here because the administration has made a decision to go in one direction and Congress is here to try and straighten that up," said Rep. William Keating (D-Massachusetts), the sponsor of H.R.5244, which is the House version of the bill.

The House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs took testimony on the bill during a hearing on July 24 in which lawmakers of both parties expressed support for it. The next step would be a markup session before the entire House Committee on Natural Resources.

“We will pass this bill. This is not a partisan issue,” said Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), one of the co-sponsors of the bill, which has the support of seven Republicans in addition to 14 Democrats.

The Senate version of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act is S.2628. It has not yet received a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs but the chamber could always take up H.R.5244 if that bill advances.

The Trump administration so far has not taken a position for or against the bill. But there has been confusion among political leadership at the Department of the Interior regarding the legislative effort.

In speaking at NCAI's 75th annual convention barely three weeks ago, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney incorrectly stated that the BIA hadn't been asked for its views on the measure. In reality, the Trump administration had sent a senior career employee to the hearing in July.

"Generally, we would be inclined to support it," Sweeney said of the legislation at NCAI's meeting in Denver, Colorado, on October 22.

Sweeney also insisted she had little choice but to reverse course on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's land-into-trust application. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar forced her to conclude that the the tribe was not "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934, she said.

"I walked into this decision," Sweeney said of her action, which came after she had been on the job for less than two months.

But tribal leaders aren't accepting that explanation. Lance Gumbs, a senior trustee from the Shinnecock Nation, whose federal status remained in limbo until 2010, said Sweeney is ducking her responsibilities.

"We are all in jeopardy because of this decision," Gumbs said at the Capitol. "It's on the steps of the new Assistant Secretary."

For now, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's land base remains in trust, but only because the matter remains in litigation in two different federal courts. The reservation consists of about 150 acres in the town of Mashpee and another 170 acres in the city of Taunton, representing just a small portion of Wampanoag ancestral territory.

But if the BIA were to take the reservation out of trust, it would mark the first time since the termination era that such a step has been taken.

“We are a terminated tribe," Chairman Larry Wright Jr. of the Ponca Tribe said at the U.S. Capitol. "We know what it’s like to lose all of our land.”

The Poncas in Nebraska were among the last two tribes whose federal status was terminated by the United States, actions which took place in the 1960s. Both tribes have since been restored to federal recognition.

Jefferson Keel, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, believes the BIA lacks the authority to remove the land from trust status. Doing so would be "illegal," he said on Wednesday morning.

“We have an inherent right to be here," Keel, who also serves as lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, said outside of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The BIA has acknowledged that Keel is right. "BIA does not have a regulatory process to take land out of trust for tribes," the agency said in a statement after Indianz.Com inquired about the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

But the Trump administration has sought changes to the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151) that would account for such a possibility in the future. The draft regulations would require the BIA to comply "with a final court order and any resulting judicial remedy, including, for example, taking land out of trust."

Tribes have trashed the proposal, which remains under consideration in Washington. The comment period closed on July 2, after a series of consultations and listening sessions were held across Indian Country.

"We have engaged in consultations to ask the questions of tribes whether there are improvements that could be made to the off-reservation FTT [fee-to-trust] process," the agency said in a statement. No decisions have been made about what might end up going into the regulations.

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