Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) greets Miss Native American USA Karyl Frankiewicz at the United South and Eastern Tribes 2019 Impact Week meeting in Arlington, Virginia, on March 4, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

United South and Eastern Tribes pledge unity amid uncertainty in the Trump era

ARLINGTON, Virginia -- "This is Indian land," Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) told leaders of the United South and Eastern Tribes as they opened a crucial meeting here on Monday.

But while Haaland, who is one of the first two Native women in Congress, was merely stating the obvious, members of the organization aren't certain that everyone in the nation's capital feels the same way. As their relationship with the federal government faces unprecedented challenges, leaders of tribes from Texas to Maine to Florida stressed unity as they endure another year in the Trump era.

“We find ourselves in a moment of tribal nation - United States relations where we must be steadfast in our unity and resolved to do everything in our power to ensure that we are in the best position to protect and promote our inherent sovereign authorities,” USET President Kirk Francis said at the opening of Impact Week at a hotel in suburban Washington, D.C.

The challenges represent an attack on "our foundational relationship with the United States," Francis asserted. Whether it's pressing for adequate federal funding or improved health care, he and other leaders said they are encountering numerous hurdles in their dealings with the Trump administration.

‪The United South and Eastern Tribes are opening their Impact Week 2019 meeting Monday morning. The Burnurwurbskek drum group is here from Maine. USET is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year!‬

Posted by Indianz.Com on Monday, March 4, 2019
Indianz.Com on Facebook: Burnurwurbskek drum group at USET

"In many meetings with the government, they try to divide us," Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said in remarks that underscored the common obstacles Indian nations face across the nation and highlighted USET's alliance with the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association.

"They give us crumbs and try to get us to fight over them, but we have a choice to look beyond that and fight to stay united as one nation, the Native American nation," said Frazier.

For USET, one of the biggest areas of contention affects their homelands. Due to their unique histories, many of the organization's member tribes weren't formally acknowledged by the U.S. until recently and, as a result, they are being told they can't restore the lands they lost, or were denied, at the hands of colonial governments.

“The Indian Reorganization Act has been used as a weapon against many of the tribes in this room," said Chief Lynn Malerba of the Mohegan Tribe.

Posting of the colors as the United South and Eastern Tribes opens its Impact Week 2019 meeting in the Washington DC area. USET represents tribes from Maine to Florida to Texas.

Posted by Indianz.Com on Monday, March 4, 2019
Indianz.Com on Facebook: Posting of the colors at USET

The Narragansett Tribe was the first USET member to fall victim. According to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar, the tribe was not "under federal jurisdiction" when the Indian Reorganization Act became law in 1934 so it cannot benefit from the land-into-trust process despite having a reservation in Rhode Island.

A decade later, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is poised to suffer the same fate, with its reservation in neighboring Massachusetts slated to be taken out of trust due to Carcieri. If the Trump administration follows through, it will mark the first time that's happened since the disastrous termination era.

"We have an administration that chooses not to protect tribal interests," Haaland observed in her remarks.

But if tribes were looking to Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, a Trump administration appointee, for answers about their homelands, they didn't find many on Monday. While she was sympathetic to the concerns, she said -- more than than once -- that her hands are tied by the Supreme Court's ruling.

"As you know, the Carcieri decision has really formed and guided how we make decisions," said Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native woman to serve in the political post. She did not offer the Trump administration's support for a Congress fix to the ruling, which marked its 10th anniversary just last week.

Indianz.Com on YouTube: Rep. Deb Haaland at USET Impact Week

Darryl LaCounte, the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tried to assuage tribal doubts when he said he too was concerned about the current administration's approach to the land-into-trust process. But in doing so, he disseminated overly optimistic data about the acreage that has been taken into trust since the arrival of Donald Trump in January 2017.

“I know there's a lot of misinformation out there about the amount of lands that have been taken into trust since the administration turned over," LaCounte said before sharing the wrong numbers with USET. "But, in reality, we had a very, very good year in 2018."

According to LaCounte, the "very good year" saw more than 86,000 acres placed in trust.

“That's a good number, regardless of what administration you're in," said LaCounte, who is a career employee, not a political one.

It turns out that LaCounte was mistaken. When pressed for clarification, the BIA director told Indianz.Com that he accidentally read the wrong figure off a printed report he had been provided.

In reality, only about 32,000 acres were placed in trust in 2018 -- much lower than the figure he gave to USET. According to the printed report, a copy of which was reviewed by Indianz.Com, the BIA approved 304 applications that year.

The much larger figure, it turns out, was from 2017. According to the printed report, the BIA approved 243 applications for nearly 83,000 acres that year.

"I'm very comfortable that this administration is comfortable with the fee-to-trust process," LaCounte, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians who works at the BIA's central office in D.C., told tribes during his presentation. "I too had some anxiety but I don't any more. I'm feeling good about it."

USET leaders weren't sharing the sentiment. Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe said the BIA region that serves almost every member of the organization remains understaffed and takes far too long to make land-into-trust decisions that should otherwise be routine.

"We had someone who was brought in a few years back and then they were taken away," Andrews-Maltais said of an employee who was once assigned to land-into-trust at the Eastern regional office in Nashville, Tennessee.

Unlike other parts of Indian Country, where reservation offices are common, the BIA only maintains three agencies in the Eastern region -- none of them are in the Northeast.

"We’ve had fee-to-trust trust that takes forever to go in -- mandatory fee to trust," added Andrews-Maltais, referring to situations in which the BIA is mandated, by law, to approve a particular application. "It took over a year to get that mandatory done."

Lance Gumbs, a trustee for the Shinnecock Nation, expressed similar concerns. The BIA has failed to take into account the unique manner in which his tribe secured its lands, long before the United States became a government, he said.

“We have restricted fee lands, not trust lands," said Gumbs, describing a legal situation that also impacts other tribes that belong to USET. “There has to be some kind of mechanism to look at that."

Without a dedicated process, Gumbs said his people are suffering, unable to move forward with economic development and other types of projects on their homelands in New York state. The tribe gained formal recognition of its status in 2010.

"It is impacting us greatly," Gumbs told Sweeney. "It really is hindering everything."

The only welcome news the Trump administration seemed to provide was the death of controversial changes to the land-into-trust process. Sweeney confirmed that the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151) are off the table.

“After reviewing the comments and hearing from Indian Country, the department has determined it will not propose new regulations at this time," said Sweeney, relaying the same message a higher-ranking official gave to tribes just a couple of weeks ago.

USET will continue their meeting all week, with some sessions taking place in Arlington and others in Washington, D.C., not far from the U.S. Capitol. The organization will be joining with the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes for a reception on Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening, another sign of its efforts to work across regional boundaries.

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