Indianz.Com > News > ‘Keep your promise’: Coquille Tribe still waiting on restoration of homelands
Deb Haaland
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland speaks the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in Washington, D.C., on November 30, 2023. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior
‘Keep your promise’
Coquille Tribe still waiting on restoration of homelands in Oregon
Wednesday, December 6, 2023

The Biden administration is promising to make it easier for tribes to restore their homelands and for one Indian nation in the Pacific Northwest, the initiative couldn’t come soon enough.

For more than eight years, the Coquille Tribe has been waiting for an answer on its fee-to-trust application in Oregon. The lengthy effort has stretched through three U.S. presidents — including one that canceled work on it altogether for unclear reasons.

“I went through the Obama administration, the Trump administration and now the Biden administration,” Chairperson Brenda Meade said in an interview. “And my ask is going to continue.”

“Allow us the process that we are allowed by Congress,” Meade said. “Keep your promise — for once — to the Coquille people.”

Coquille Tribe
Citizens of the Coquille Tribe paddle a ceremonial canoe in the Ni-les’tun Marsh within the Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The tribe named the Ni-les’tun Marsh, meaning “small fish dam in the river.” Photo: Roy W. Lowe / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

For Meade’s people, the promise means the restoration of land the tribe lost when its nation-to-nation relationship with the United States was terminated by an act of Congress in 1954. It would take 35 more years before the Coquille Restoration Act opened a new chapter, designating a handful of counties in Oregon as part of the service area where lands could be acquired through the fee-into-trust process.

Jackson County falls within the service area defined by Congress, and that’s where the tribe plans to open a modest gaming facility on 2.4 acres in the city of Medford. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), under the current presidential administration, has spent the last two years reviewing the project.

But Meade said opposition from other Indian nations has bogged down the completion of the environmental impact statement for the casino. She hopes new regulations that are being finalized at the BIA will finally lead to an answer on the application.

“I applaud the Department of the Interior and the Biden administration for trying to make this more streamlined because this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen — this process I’ve been through,” Meade told Indianz.Com.

Tribal Listening Session in Oregon
Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, fifth from left in back row, hosts tribal leaders and tribal representatives at a listening session in Bend, Oregon, on October 14, 2021. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) can be seen to the right of Newland. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

As the White House Tribal Nations Summit opens on Wednesday, the fee-to-trust regulations are being touted as one of the Biden administration’s significant accomplishments. Ahead of the two-day event, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland spoke broadly about the historic nature of the relationship between tribes and the U.S. government.

“If there’s one thing I hope tribal leaders walk away from this year’s summit with, it’s this: the progress we’ve made together is substantial,” Haaland, who is the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior, said on a call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s history making, and it’s thanks to President Biden working diligently with tribes across the country that we are finally building the future our people deserve,” said Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna who isn’t participating in the two-day gathering following her
positive COVID-19 diagnosis.

During the call, a senior administration official said the directive to streamline the fee-to-trust process came from the president himself. On the campaign trail in 2020, Biden promised to “make it easier to place land into trust.”

For the Coquille Tribe and its gaming project, the promise is easier said than done, as Haaland is facing immense pressure to reject the application. Most of the opposition coming from Indian nations in Oregon and California, whose leaders fear a new casino will harm their existing operations in the two neighboring states.

“My people will suffer severe negative consequences if Interior’s free market policy is carried out as proposed,” said Chairman Russell Attebery of the Karuk Tribe.

“Our tribe only has one casino,” Attebery said of the facility in northern California, about 54 miles from the Coquille site across the border in Oregon. “We recently opened it after years of challenges. Now we might be forced to close it because another tribe wants a second casino in a place outside of their historic lands.”

But Haaland is also confronting intense pressure from a surprising contingent: members of her own party. Democratic members of Congress from Oregon, California and Washington, as well as Democratic politicians from those states, have been bombarding Interior with statements of opposition since 2022, underscoring the dilemma the Cabinet secretary faces with a project that would fulfill a promise to one tribe even as it impacts others in ways they do not accept.

“Under your leadership, this administration has taken historic steps to support tribal nations and Native communities,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) wrote in a December 1 letter to Haaland.

“We appreciate your commitment to upholding the federal government’s trust and treaty responsibilities and commitment to advancing equity—both for and among tribes.” the Oregon Democrats continued. “A decision to give an advantage to one restored tribe at the expense of so many other tribes would stand in stark contrast to that commitment.”

The BIA closed the comment period on the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Coquille Tribe’s fee-to-trust application and gaming project on February 23. Two virtual public hearings were held as the agency took comments about the effort — some seven years after an “notice of intent” was published during the Barack Obama administration, way back in 2015.

During the Donald Trump administration, the BIA abruptly stopped the process — in September 2020, not long before the presidential election that Joe Biden went onto win. Chairperson Meade said the action came as a complete surprise to the tribe.

“We were still doing the environmental work,” Meade told Indianz.Com. “So it was out of out of left field.”

Then, a couple of months after Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland of the Department of the Interior held a listening session with Oregon tribes, the BIA announced the resumption of the process. Meade attended the meeting in October 2021, as did Democratic Sen. Merkley.

“When the Biden administration came in, we asked them to look at this process that we have, because we didn’t believe that it was at a decision point,” Meade said, referring to the unusual nature of the cancellation of the EIS.

“The Biden administration agreed with us and they said, ‘you have every right to a process,'” Meade added. “And that’s what we’ve always said: ‘Please make a decision on the law, please make a decision on the applicable requirements.'”

Brenda Meade
Chairperson Brenda Meade of the Coquille Tribe, far left at table, attends a tribal listening session in Bend, Oregon, on October 14, 2021. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

Earlier this year, the tribe also participated in the consultation process for the 25 CFR Part 151, Land Acquisition regulations that are being finalized by the BIA. Just last month, Newland spoke about the the difficulties with the fee-to-trust process.

“You know, the Indian Reorganization Act is almost 100 years old now,” Newland said at the 80th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians, referring to the 1934 federal statute that authorized the restoration of tribal homelands.

“And since that law was put into effect, we at the BIA and at the Department of the Interior, we’ve made it harder and harder and harder to put land-into-trust,” Newland said in New Orleans, Louisiana, on November 13.

But Newland, the former president of the Bay Mills Indian Community, said the Biden administration has placed nearly 300,000 acres in trust since January 2021. That outpaces the nearly 500,000 acres that were acquired in trust during the entire eight years of the Obama administration, during which Newland also served.

And when he mentioned that the new regulations would “make the land-into-trust process easier,” members of the audience applauded and yelled in support.

“We’re also working, as you all hear me say all the time, to complete our land-into-trust regulations, to make sure that this commitment from the president to restore tribal homelands outlives those of us who are working in the federal government today,” Newland told NCAI.

Indianz.Com Video: Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland addresses National Congress of American Indians #NCAI80

For the Coquille Tribe, the next step in the process is the publication of the final EIS for the fee-to-trust application and casino. But there is no definitive timeline for the release of the document — the / website only contains a vague “To Be Determined” reference about the project.

Despite the uncertainty, Meade said the tribe was committed to seeing it through, regardless of opposition from other Indian nations. She described the gaming facility as part of an effort to diversify operations and generate more revenue for tribal programs.

“We are a powerful nation, resilient,” Meade told Indianz.Com “We have been through termination. We have been through removal of our land. We have been through hell the last 200 years and we’re working forward.”

“We’re going to continue to exercise our sovereignty,” Meade said. “We’re going to continue to diversify and to take care of our people. Health care is our number one priority.”

The White House: President Biden Delivers Remarks at the White House Tribal Nations Summit

The White House Tribal Nations Summit begins at 9am Eastern on Wednesday. President Biden is expected to deliver remarks at around 1:45pm Eastern. Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to address the gathering in the afternoon as well.

A fact sheet released by the White House on Wednesday morning lists numerous actions being taken to support nation-to-nation relationships and promote tribal sovereignty. The section about the new regulations follows:

Final Fee-to-Trust Land Acquisitions Rules. DOI will announce the publication of its final rule amending the process that governs fee-to-trust land (or “land into trust”) process for Tribal Nations to expand their land bases by transferring land title to the United States to be held in trust for the benefit of an individual Indian or Tribe, including in Alaska. This process is crucial for Tribal economic development and Tribal sovereignty, and helps right the wrongs of past federal policies such as allotment, which removed millions of acres of land from Tribal ownership and federal protection. DOI’s final rule creates a more efficient, less cumbersome, and less expensive fee-to-trust process, including for conservation purposes.

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