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On land-into-trust, tribes encounter many obstacles

The Tohono O'odham Nation needs land for agricultural use. Isleta Pueblo wants a cultural site protected. The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe hopes to kick-start economic development.

All of these dreams are hindered by a confusing, slow-moving and increasingly litigious process, tribal representatives said yesterday. During a lengthy discussion at the mid-year session of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), participants focused on the roadblocks they encounter while trying to restore some of the 90 million acres tribes lost due to white settlement, unscrupulous deals and outright theft.

By almost any account, the land-into-trust process, as it is usually called, is broken. Since 1934, when Congress put a halt to the allotment policy, tribes have only regained about 9 million acres of the lost estate.

It can take the Bureau of Indian Affairs up to 10 years, and possibly longer, to decide on a tribe's land-into-trust application. Meanwhile, business deals evaporate, a new tribal council is elected or momentum simply dies.

"Going through the process, it costs money," said Alvin Moyle, chairman of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe in Nevada, whose tribe had to go to court to reclaim 2,400 acres of land.

Then there's the opposition from local and state governments, which often object because land taken into trust is removed from the local tax rolls and is no longer subject to state jurisdiction. In recent years, interest groups have also joined the fray as fears of Indian gaming and tribal sovereignty grow.

"Every decision will be challenged," said Derril Jordan, a former Department of Interior solicitor. "The process, as we know, is getting more difficult."

Complicating matters, participants said, is a lack of clarity at the BIA, which handles land-into-trust requests. There are no clear standards, they shared, because each of the BIA's 12 regions follows its own course.

"Some applications are treated more harshly when there are no provisions for that," said Robert Chicks, chairman of the Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohican Indians in Wisconsin.

Agreeing with the assessments was Aurene Martin, the acting assistant secretary for Indian affairs. She said there is no centralized system to keep track of what is happening on a national level.

"There are so many parcels that we don't know about," she told attendees. "There is no way for me to know what is going on in the regions."

Martin came to the meeting to seek guidance on whether the Bush administration should reopen debate on a set of regulations her predecessor and old boss, former assistant secretary Neal McCaleb, rescinded in late 2001. Finalized at the end of the Clinton administration, the rules would have imposed timelines and standards on the BIA.

Even though the regulations were pulled, there is still confusion within BIA, according a former employee who managed a unique project in California that helped tribes navigate the system. Sharon Redthunder, who recently retired after 37 years of federal service, said tribes are being misinformed about the state of affairs.

"Don't let them pull the wool over your eyes," she said. "There is no moratorium on land-into-trust."

Martin acknowledged the communication problems voiced at the meeting. "We do have a lot of confusing and mixed messages coming out of central office," she told attendees.

But Arlen Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Tribe of Nevada, said the problems were only going to get worse. First, he said, the BIA is losing employees like Redthunder, who have decades of experience and can't be replaced easily. Second, he said, the ongoing reorganization of the agency will affect the land-into-trust process.

"What it will be is too many chiefs and not enough Indians in the BIA," he told Martin.

A task force composed of tribal leaders and federal officials developed the Clinton-era regulations through an intense government-to-government consultation process. Martin has said restarting those talks is not an option at the moment because the Bush administration has placed a higher priority on trust reform.

Chicks, who co-chaired the task force, and Redthunder didn't think that was necessarily a bad thing. They both urged tribes to submit their applications for contiguous land acquisitions -- meaning those next to an existing reservation lands -- because the new regulations will likely make this part of the process tougher.

But John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma and a participant in a "reengineering" project at the Department of Interior, said the Bush administration is reluctant to take land into trust. He said Secretary Gale Norton, her deputy J. Steven Griles and other senior officials view the process at arms' length.

"It's insane from their perspective," he said, "That's kind of their thought on the sixth floor at central office. 'Hey, why make our problems bigger until we can get it straightened out?'"

Related Stories:
Restoring Indian land, one acre at a time (04/23)
Land-into-trust regulations not on Bush agenda (04/11)
Court says U.S. can protect tribe's interests (02/04)
Land still in limbo after decade-long fight (10/16)
The day the Supreme Court said no (10/16)
McCaleb reopens controversial gaming debate (1/2)
McCaleb revokes trust land standards (11/9)
Focus on trust reform leaves estate on sideline (03/12)
Land regulations targeted for withdrawal (8/13)
Supreme Court turns down Pequot land case (5/1)
Norton delays land-into-trust regulations (4/16)

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