Tribal leaders debate trust reform bill
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THURSDAY, MAY 23, 2002

Tribal leaders expressed concern on Wednesday about a provision in a trust reform bill that would define who is and who isn't an Indian.

Saying thousands of Native Americans would be negatively impacted, they asked the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to strip the language from the legislation. In its place was offered an expansive alternative that would allow anyone who can demonstrate Indian ancestry -- but not necessarily tribal membership -- to inherit individual allotted lands in trust.

"This definition will harm Indian Country, cause jurisdictional problems and cut off far too many people who are Indian, yet not enrolled for a variety of reasons," said Ben Speakthunder, the president of the Fort Belknap tribal council in Montana.

Agreeing were two other tribal leaders who testified that the issue has already divided their communities. Maurice Lyons, chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians of California, said tribal members are being forced to choose who will inherit their land based on the restriction.

"It is breaking her heart that she cannot leave her non-enrolled grandchildren any of her property as it would pass out of trust," he said of an 82-year-old elder confronted with the dilemma.

"We are taking a stand on our Indian land," added Austin Nunez, an official of the Tohono O'odham Nation of Arizona who testified on behalf of a national coalition of tribal interests.

But not all on the panel thought expanding the meaning of Indian would preserve and protect the 56-million-acre trust estate, which has grown fractionated over the years as lands get passed onto a new generation. Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said legal challenges by non-tribal members could "further erode tribal sovereignty."

The debate came on a bill drafted by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), the vice chairman of the Indian panel, to address inheritance of Indian lands. The measure would create one Indian Country standard in order to streamline the probate, or will, process and eliminate thorny ownership issues.

Currently, Indian probates are resolved by state law, which differs greatly from state to state. According to Campbell, the lack of one standard creates unfair hardships on tribes and individual Indians.

Tribal leaders agreed but zeroed in on the Indian issue as one of their key concerns. Lyons suggested adopting the Indian Health Service definition in order to ensure that land passed onto those lacking tribal membership would remain in trust status.

Like Hall, however, Campbell said doing so could create more problems. "Wouldn't you suppose those people at some time challenge tribal jurisdiction over themselves," he questioned.

Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb said the Bush administration supports the bill and pointed out that some Indians hold interests in reservations in more than one state. "The effect of applying up to 33 different state laws," he said, "results in disparate and unfair treatment."

Campbell promised a quick resolution of the issues in order to get the bill approved. He said the committee record would remain open for another two weeks.

Related Documents:
Written Witness Testimony (5/22)

Get the Bill:
A bill to amend the Indian Land Consolidation Act to provide for probate reform with respect to trust or restricted land (S.1340)

Relevant Links:
Trust Reform, NCAI -