Tribes complained that the proposed regulations did the opposite. They argued that it would make it nearly impossible for them to acquire lands away from existing reservations despite the existence of laws like the Michigan Indian Land Claims Settlement Act that were intended to create opportunities instead of hurdles. Following the complaints, the Trump administration declined to move forward with the changes to the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151). Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced he was pulling the plug a year ago. “I have no interest in modifying our 151 regulations unless you want them changed so we are not going to go forward with that matter," Bernhardt told the National Congress of American Indians, where Sault Tribe Chairperson Aaron Payment serves as Vice President, shortly before being confirmed as the leader, of the Department of the Interior, the federal agency with the most responsibilities in Indian Country. Tribes, however, have detected yet another swing of the policy pendulum. During NCAi's winter session last month, they expressed alarms about the Trump administration's efforts to undo a legal opinion that addressed uncertainties in the homelands process following the devastating U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar. In response to blistering criticism at the meeting in D.C., Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney all but confirmed that the Office of the Solicitor at Interior, whose leader was formally installed just a few months ago, was the one calling the shots on key Indian policy issues such as the fee-to-trust process.
"I have to tell you that the Solicitor's Office sets the position for the department," Sweeney told tribal leaders, essentially abdicating her authority to the legal arm of her agency. "My role is one of advocacy, and advocacy for clarity and decision-making." "In my discussions with the Solicitor, I continue to advocate that Indian Country deserves to have transparency in the process," Sweeney continued. "Indian Country deserves to have decisions rendered in a timely manner and that there's clarity in how we make decisions." The response wasn't satisfactory for tribal leaders. “We didn't quite get answers," NCAI President Fawn Sharp said a day later . "We are committed at the National Congress of American Indians to ensure that those questions do no go unanswered." With the doubts lingering, the Department of the Interior has undergone some shifts in power. Following Tara Sweeney's arrival in D.C. in 2018, John Tahsuda left the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. He now works as a policy adviser to Secretary David Bernhardt. The Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs position remains unfilled to this day, leaving Sweeney without a key member of her leadership team. Amid the void, Washington insiders have noted that the Office of the Solicitor -- the same entity that asserted control over tribal homelands policy in the lower 48 and in Alaska -- has detailed some of its employees to her office. "The Devil's at her doorstep," one insider told Indianz.Com. As for Jim Cason, he continues to hold the title of Associate Deputy Secretary. But he no longer plays a significant role in Indian policy, having stepped back in late 2018, shortly after Sweeney was confirmed as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. The Indian Affairs portfolio is now primarily in the hands of Gregg Renkes, a former attorney general of Alaska who serves as a policy adviser to Secretary Bernhardt, according to employees at Interior and tribal advocates who work closely with the department.
Chairman Aaron Payment of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians: “We survived Andrew Jackson so we can survive anything.” #StandWithMashpee pic.twitter.com/mfBnfsZyDw— indianz.com (@indianz) November 14, 2018
The presence of Renkes is notable, as Alaska has long opposed the ability of tribes in the state to benefit from the fee-to-trust process at the BIA. The Trump administration -- without prior consultation or notice -- put a hold on all land-into-trust applications in Alaska in the summer of 2018, before Sweeney had a chance to be installed in her position, depriving her of a say in the matter. The hold has yet to be lifted. "The land-into-trust issue with respect to Alaska is still under review," Sweeney said of a process that was initiated by the legal arm of Interior more than 18 months ago, to no apparent conclusion. "I don't have any other information to provide you at this time." "I wish I could give you a different answer but you know that I will always give you an answer," Sweeney said at NCAI's winter session on February 11. "It may not be one that we agree on -- but you're going to get an answer from me." Turtle Talk has posted documents from the tribal homelands case, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians v. Bernhardt.
WOW. A day after hailing the "historic" addition of an Alaska Native to the team, the Trump administration has withdrawn -- pending "further review" -- an Obama-era legal opinion that affirmed the rights of tribes in Alaska to restore their homelands https://t.co/q89IVhGRpi pic.twitter.com/1i4KrcDMRo— indianz.com (@indianz) June 29, 2018