John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, center, and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke are seen with a student at the Riverside Indian School, a Bureau of Indian Education institution, in Anadarko, Oklahoma, on January 25, 2018. Photo: Office of Public Affairs - Indian Affairs

Mechoopda Tribe scores victory in long-running fight over homelands

The court victories keep coming for tribes seeking to restore their homelands even as the Trump administration seeks to erect more hurdles for Indian Country.

The latest win is for the Mechoopda Tribe, one of the many victims of the disastrous termination era. Though a lawsuit resulted in the restoration of federal status in 1992, the Mechoopda Rancheria had been whittled down to just one acre by that time.

But the tribe is now on its way to recovery after a long-running fight that stretches back more than 10 years to the Bush era. In a unanimous decision, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday backed the restoration of a 645-acre site in the city of Chico, California.

Writing for the majority, Judge Sri Srinivasan noted that the parcel lies just 10 miles from the original rancheria. He also pointed out that the land was part of a treaty that never saw the light of day due to secretive dealings in the nation's capital.

"Indeed, the parcel is situated just one mile from the Pentz Hills, a set of buttes that are of spiritual significance to the tribe," Srinivasan wrote in the 15-page ruling. "The tribe also hunted, fished, and gathered on the parcel.”

"And in 1851, the Mechoopda negotiated a treaty with the federal government, which, if ratified, would have included the Chico parcel within the tribe’s reservation," Srinivasan added.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Butte County v. Chaudhuri

The decision is the fifth of its kind in recent years. The D.C. Circuit, which is considered one of the most influential in the nation because of its dealings in federal legal issues, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears a large number of Indian law cases, have consistently sided with tribal interests.

"Enough is enough!" a judge wrote in January as the D.C. Circuit resolved a long-running case involving the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, another California-based victim of termination. Just this week, the court affirmed the tribe's victory in refusing to rehear the matter.

Despite the string of wins, the Trump administration is actively trying to discourage tribes from seeking new homelands. The highest-ranking political official at the Bureau of Indian Affairs has even warned vaguely of "bad court cases" that somehow need to be addressed through more restrictive regulations.

Former legal and political officials at the BIA and its parent agency, the Department of the Interior, have had trouble coming up with more than one case that might fit the description. But that isn't stopping the Trump team from moving forward with proposed changes to the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151) that are widely opposed in Indian Country.

After tribes trashed the changes last fall, the BIA agreed to delay the roll-out. But the initiative moved forward again this year, with a series of consultations and listening sessions taking place around the nation.

A Mechoopda grave site in Chico, California, where the tribe is restoring its homelands. Photo: mtnbikrrrr

Tribal leaders and their advocates have questioned the need for the changes in light of President Donald Trump's attempts to streamline regulations and encourage development. Many see the effort as a veiled attempt to hinder the success and growth of the $31 billion Indian gaming industry.

"I'm a second-generation person in this world of tribal sovereignty," Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr., of the National Indian Gaming Association, said at a consultation in February. "I learned this from my father, who traveled this whole country long before there were any lobbyists — very little staff, no cell phones, fax, none of that stuff — and my father taught me about sovereignty, self-determination, self- sufficiency, and all these things."

"And really, that is what our land is about, coming back to where we came from," said Stevens, who is a citizen of the Oneida Nation, where his father served as a long-time leader.

"And it is unfortunate when people come and say that we are trying to get a casino," Stevens added.

The Mechoopda Tribe indeed plans to build a casino on the 645-acre parcel in California. Normally, gaming would not be allowed there since the land was acquired after 1988.

But an exception in Section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act applies to tribes that were restored to federal recognition. The provision was written to ensure equity and provide a sense of justice for those that were hurt by bad federal policies.

During the Bush and Obama administrations, the National Indian Gaming Commission confirmed that the Mechoopda Tribe qualified for the exception. With its lawsuit, Butte County attempted to undermine the tribe's status but the D.C. Circuit rejected all of the county's arguments in the ruling on Friday.

As for those changes to the land-into-trust process, the last consultation took place on Thursday.

“Thank you to all who attended & provided input!” John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs for the Trump administration, said a post on Twitter.

Written comments are still being accepted by the BIA. The deadline is June 30.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the Mechoopda Tribe case, Butte County v. Chaudhuri.

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Butte County v. Chaudhuri (April 13, 2018)

Prior D.C. Circuit Decision:
Butte County v. Hogen (July 13, 2010)

Federal Register Notice:
Land Acquisitions; Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria of California (February 27, 2014)

National Indian Gaming Commission Indian Lands Opinions:
January 24, 2014 | March 14, 2003

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