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Indian land bill draws complaints from all sides

The Bush administration and tribal representatives asked a Senate committee on Wednesday not to move forward with a controversial trust reform bill they characterized as too confusing.

Wayne Nordwall, a Bureau of Indian Affairs regional director, said the proposal only makes an already complicated situation worse. It fails to resolve the increasing fractionation of Indian lands, a growing problem, he said.

"We can't interpret it and we know we can't explain it to Indian people," he told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Agreeing were the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, the Indian Land Working Group and the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association. In written and oral testimony, the organizations, which represent dozens of tribes and individual Indians, opposed the creation of a "passive" trust, a new status of land ownership.

"The amendments that are proposed here," said Cris Stainbrook, executive director of the non-profit ILTF, "we still believe that they contain some provisions that limit self-determination and threaten the Indian land base."

Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) are the sponsors of the American Indian Probate Reform Act of 2003. With it, they hope to stem the complex division of Indian lands into smaller and often unmanageable interests by creating a uniform inheritance code.

No one who spoke at the hearing opposed the national probate standard. Currently, Indian landowners are subject to 33 state laws, which can lead to unfair treatment, according to government officials and tribal leaders. Inter-tribal marriage complicates matters, said John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma and a member of a Department of Interior committee that is studying trust management issues.

Only Ben O'Neal, a council member for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe of Wyoming, supported the passive trust. He said it would allow his children, who are not members of the tribe, to inherit 1,200 acres of ranch land.

Otherwise, he is forced to remove the land from trust status. "I find this unacceptable," he told the committee.

But Sally Willit, a judge who testified for the Indian Land Working Group, said there are ways to draft a law to ensure lineal descendants who are not tribal members can inherit land. "A membership definition orphans millions of people," said Willit. The overwhelming majority of Indians, 75 percent, she said, marry outside of their tribe.

Muddying the waters, witnesses noted, is an earlier version of the bill, passed in 2000, that has caused "panic" and "fear" in Indian Country. Nordwall, Stainbrook and Willit said landowners, particularly elders, are so confused with the law that they are taking their land out of trust status.

The 2000 act is controversial because its definition of "Indian" cuts out lineal descendants with Indian blood but who aren't enrolled. Due to numerous complaints, the Interior hasn't "certified" the act, or made it effective. The Senate committee has supported the delay.

But Nordwall said Secretary Gale Norton is considering implementing the 2000 definitions as early as this year because of the need to combat the increasing division of Indian land.

"We are at the point that within another generation or two that this land is going to be so fractionated that we're not going to be able to know who owns it, we're not going to be able to account for income that comes in," he said. "It's essentially going to become almost worthless."

Campbell said he wanted to develop amendments that are "acceptable" and "understandable" to parties involved. "My morning started out pretty good until I came here," he said.

Thomas questioned whether it was wise for the government to spend money and time on land consolidation when some of the interests are of little value. "The department hasn't done a hell of a lot" over the years, he observed, because fractionation was a known problem as early as the 1930s.

"Just because the issues are difficult doesn't mean they should be prolonged forever," he told Nordwall.

Inouye didn't attend the hearing as Campbell had expected. No Democratic staff members were present either.

Get the Bill:

Relevant Documents:
SCIA Witness List (May 7, 2003)

Related Stories:
Congress tackles trust land reform bill (5/6)
Bush land program called inadequate (5/6)
Accounting of trust land pushed (5/6)
Judge upholds ongoing trust relationship (04/29)
Bush administration turns to Congress on trust (04/04)
Appropriators question historical accounting plan (03/13)
Passive trust faces test in new Congress (11/25)
Senate approves omnibus Indian package (11/21)
Bill offers 'extinguishment' of trust fund claims (11/06)
Legislation to create a 'passive' Indian trust (10/18)
Take a pass on passive Indian trust (10/18)
Trust reform legislation sidetracked (10/17)
Tribes enter 'new phase' in trust reform battle (10/03)
Sparks fly at trust reform meeting (9/27)
Here comes BITAM all over again (9/27)
Bush proposal to take 'unclaimed' Indian land (09/26)
Rift widens on trust reform negotiations (9/12)
Tribes scrap talks on trust standards (9/11)
Tribal leaders debate trust reform bill (05/23)
Interior considering a limited trust fund (3/15)

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