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Indianz.Com Video: S.108 – Authorizing Seminole Tribe to lease or transfer certain lands
President Biden signs pro-tribal bill into law as Native American Heritage Month winds down
Tuesday, November 23, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bipartisan bill to enable the Seminole Tribe to exercise greater control over its lands in Florida has finally become law as National Native American Heritage Month winds down.

President Joe Biden signed S.108 into law on Tuesday morning. The measure ensures the tribe can lease or transfer real estate without running afoul of the Indian Nonintercourse Act, a colonial-era statute that otherwise requires Congressional approval for every single property transaction.

“Thank you to Senators Rubio and Rick Scott and Representative Soto for their leadership,” Biden said in reference to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida) and Rep. Darren Soto (D-Florida), the sponsors of the new law.

The U.S. Senate passed S.108 on May 26. The bill was approved by unanimous consent, meaning it was considered non-controversial and no one objected to its passage by a voice vote.

“This bill is necessary in order to create additional economic opportunities for the Seminole Tribe of Florida and its members,” Chairman Marcellus Osceola, Jr. said after approval in the Senate.

The U.S. House of Representatives took up S.108 on November 1, the start of Native American Heritage Month. The bill was considered under a suspension of the rules, a process usually reserved for non-controversial legislation that has bipartisan support.

“At least two title insurance companies approached by the tribe have interpreted the act to apply to real estate owned by a state-chartered subsidiary entity of the tribe,” Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-New Mexico), the chair of the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, said in explaining the need for the legislation.

“As such, the title companies will not insure the mortgage without an exemption from the act, which in turn effectively kills any ability to finance an acquisition,” Fernandez said.

Despite widespread support for S.108 across party lines, the House wasn’t able to approve the bill by a voice vote as expected. That’s because Rep. Bob Good (R-Virginia) spoke up at the last second and asked for a recorded vote.

Good is part of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative lawmakers whose members routinely object to Indian Country legislation. They have not publicly explained why they oppose the use of unanimous consent for non-controversial measures, such as S.108.

“This bill was introduced in response to real estate investment issues encountered by the Seminole Tribe, since at least two title insurance companies would not grant the tribe insurance,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Arkansas), who is the top Republican on the House Committee on Natural Resources, the legislative committee with jurisdiction over Indian issues.

“The bill ensures that the act does not interfere with the ability to convey fee land owned by the tribe, which would impede the tribe’s economic development activities and hinder job creation,” Westerman said in outlining goals that would normally seem compatible with pro-business Republican ideals. The tribe owns iconic Hard Rock entertainment and hospitality brand and employs more than 16,000 people in Florida alone.

Good did not say why he requested a recorded vote on S.108 other than to “demand the yeas and nays” on the bill. He did the same for two other Indian Country measures that were considered on November 1 — H.R.2088, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act, and H.R.4881, the Old Pascua Community Land Acquisition Act.

On the same day, another Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), requested recorded votes on four additional pro-tribal measures — H.R.1619, the Catawba Indian Nation Lands Act; H.R.1975, the Pala Band of Mission Indians Land Transfer Act; H.R.2758, the Lumbee Recognition Act; and H.R.5221, the Urban Indian Health Confer Act.

Despite the requests, the House easily passed all seven Indian Country bills. S.108 was approved by an overwhelming vote of 425 to 2 on November 2. The only “nays” were from two Republicans — Rep. Mary Miller (R-Illinois) and Rep. Ralph Norman (R-South Carolina).

“Removing this paternalist, decades-old restriction on the Seminole Tribe is long overdue,” Sen. Rubio said of the bill he sponsored in the Senate and which has now become law.

Chairman Marcellus Osceola, Jr. of the Seminole Tribe of Florida received the Tribal Leader of the Year Award from NAFOA in October 2020.

Of the other Indian Country measures approved by the House earlier this month, H.R.1975, H.R.2088 and H.R.4881 went before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on November 19. All three were received favorably and would need to be scheduled for a business meeting in order to advance in the Senate.

The committee also took testimony on S.1364, a companion version of H.R.2758, at the same hearing. The measure, which extends federal recognition the Lumbee Tribe by eliminating hurdles set up during the termination era of federal policy, received bipartisan support from members of North Carolina’s Congressional delegation, as well as backing from the Biden administration.

“While the Lumbee have been recognized by the state of North Carolina since 1885, they have faced hurdles at the federal level with both legislation and the administrative process,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland of the Department of the Interior said in written testimony to the committee.

“This has been complicated by the complex history of the Lumbee — even the Department itself in the early 1930’s characterized the Lumbee with many different origins and names, including the Croatan Indians, Siouan Indians, Cherokee Indians, and Cheraw Indians,” Newland noted. “The one constant, however, has been that the Lumbee have been known as Indians, namely the Indians of Robeson County.”

The effort, though, remains uncertain. While the House has repeatedly passed bills to recognize the Lumbee Tribe in the past, none have ever cleared the Senate, where conservative lawmakers aren’t eager to see more Indian nations gain federal status.

 Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood
The Seminole Tribe’s economic enterprise includes the Hard Rock entertainment and hospitality brand. The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood is currently celebrating the first anniversary of a $1.5 billion expansion of the property in in Hollywood, Florida. Photo: Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood

Since the start of the 117th Congress in January, lawmakers in the House and the Senate have passed just one other stand-alone Indian Country bill. S.325, a bill to ensure the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children can continue its work to address issues facing Native youth, which was delayed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden signed the measure into law on September 24.

Typically, around 20 stand-alone Indian Country bills become law during any particular session of Congress. This has been the case no matter which parties are in control of the legislative branch or in control of the executive.

But Indian Country’s legislative agenda fell behind during the Donald Trump era. Despite Republicans being in control of Congress and the White House for the entirety of the 115th Congress, for example, only about a dozen stand-alone bills became law. During the 116th Congress, when Democrats gained control of just the House of Representatives, about an equal number became law.

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