Leaders of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians came to Capitol Hill at the end of the 115th Congress to lobby for their federal recognition bill but it didn't pass. A new version is back on the agenda on Capitol Hill. Photo: Rep. Greg Gianforte

House set to clear first Indian Country bills under Democratic control

By Acee Agoyo

The U.S. House of Representatives, now under Democratic control, is set to approve the first stand-alone Indian Country bills of the 116th Congress.

Two bills will be considered next Tuesday, according to the Majority Leader's calendar. Both are being brought up under a suspension of the rules, a process typically used for non-controversial legislation.

Both measures in fact passed the House during the last session, when the chamber was under Republican rule. But neither made it across the finish line in the Senate -- for contentious reasons -- so they are back on the agenda on Capitol Hill.

A view of the Lytton Rancheria's land-into-trust site in Sonoma County, California. Photo: Lytton Residential Development Environmental Assessment

Tribal homelands
H.R.1388, the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act,
• Sponsor: Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California)

For the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, movement on H.R.1388, the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act, marks progress toward rebuilding its territory. The tribe was illegally terminated by the federal government and lost all of its trust lands as a result.

"Having a permanent homeland for our people provides a continuity for the tribal government and for taking care of our members," Chairwoman Margie Mejia said during a hearing on the bill last year. "Indian people think seven generations ahead so having this land enables the tribal government to plan for the future of its members."

H.R.1388 places about 511 acres in trust for the tribe. Plans call for housing, a community center and economic development projects, including a winery in Sonoma County, the famed wine-producing area in northern California.

But while the county has reached an agreement with the tribe to support the bill, the same can't be said for residents who continue to oppose the effort. And in testimony on the measure last year, one local official eagerly pointed out that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California), who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, opposed the tribe's land-into-trust application when she served as the state's attorney general.

A letter submitted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Harris's name accused the tribe of straying too far from its "reservation." In it, she called on the agency to reject the application even though all of the properties are located in the same county where its original rancheria was located before termination.

According to Harris, the "enormous distance between the location of its 'reservation' and the proposed trust acquisition should be found to preclude it." The tribe operates a casino in San Pablo, about 60 miles south of the properties in the land-into-trust application and the homelands bill, and that is the area she is characterizing as the tribe's "reservation."

Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Montana): Gianforte Reintroduces Legislation Recognizing Little Shell, Urges House to Pass Bill Again
Federal recognition
H.R.297, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act
• Sponsor: Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Montana)

The second bill up for consideration next week also addresses an oversight of the federal government. H.R.297, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act, extends federal recognition to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

"This Congress should provide the Little Shell Tribe with the federal recognition it deserves, particularly after its eight decades of dedicated efforts," Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Montana) said on January 9, when he introduced the bill, which was his first of the new session.

In the last session, a stand-alone bill to recognize the tribe passed the House for the first time since lawmakers initiated the effort more than a decade ago. But the measure was blocked from moving forward in the Senate by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), according to Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana).

"The Little Shell Tribe has waited far too long and jumped through too many bureaucratic hurdles to secure federal recognition. We can no longer keep kicking the can down the road," Daines said when he introduced S.51, a companion version of the bill, on the same day as H.R.297.

"The Little Shell deserve to have their sovereignty recognized," Tester said. "It's time for the federal government to do right by the Little Shell. After years of fighting, I'm hopeful we can get it done this Congress."

The tribe's status has been in limbo for more than a century following failed treaty negotiations in the late 1800s. An attempt to gain recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been marked by uncertainty through three presidential administrations, Republican and Democrat.

The tribe's pending federal recognition petition was one of the reasons why Lee blocked the bill, according to Daines and Tester. The application is under reconsideration at the BIA,

Every other Indian nation in Montana supports the tribe's federal recognition.

We are off and running with our bills... senate and house bills have been introduced..... thank you congressman...

Posted by Montana Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians on Wednesday, January 9, 2019

More tribal homelands
H.R.312, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act
• Sponsor: Rep. William Keating (D-Massachusetts)

The Majority Leader's weekly schedule is notable because one item does not appear on it at this time. That bill is H.R.312, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act.

H.R.312 would prevent the federal government from taking the reservation of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe out of trust. That is something that hasn't happened since the disastrous termination era.

In an update to tribal citizens earlier this week, Chairman Cedric Cromwell said the measure was being fast-tracked in the House. That sent the conservative media into a frenzy because a prior version was co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), another Democratic candidate for president and one who happens to be a frequent target of the Republican right.

Headlines like "House Democrats Look to Move Warren Casino Bill Without Debate," "House Democrats Plan to Move on Swampy Indian Casino Bill Backed by Warren" and "Dem Leadership Plans Late-Night Vote To Get Liz Warren Casino Bill Through House" were indicative of the interest in linking Warren to H.R.312 even though a version hasn't been introduced in the Senate. Any movement in the House will continue to generate the intense coverage.

The 116th Congress
So far in the 116th Congress, which began on January 3, no stand-alone Indian Country bills have cleared both chambers. But tribes welcomed final passage of S.47, the Natural Resources Management Act, because it includes a number of beneficial provisions to their communities.

Leaders of the Ute Tribe, on the other hand, are praising the measure because it doesn't affect their homelands, which have been the subject of controversial proposals. According to the business committee, the tribe lobbied Congress to make sure their rights weren't negatively impacted by S.47.

“For more than 100 years, bad actors in Utah and the federal government have tried to take the lands and waters that we reserved in treaties and agreements with the United States," the business committee said in a statement. "These attacks must end.”

President Donald Trump signed the bill, also known as the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, on March 12. The new law honors the memory of the late former U.S. Congressman John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan who advocated for tribal treaty rights during his time on Capitol Hill.

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