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House panel takes up land-into-trust, recognition bills

Opening Statements Part 1

Panel 1 - Testimony | Opening Statements Part 2 | Q&A

Panel 2 - Testimony | Q&A

Panel 3 - Testimony | Q&A
The Bureau of Indian Affairs backed two land-into-trust bills at a House hearing on Wednesday but continued to oppose federal recognition for a Michigan tribe.

George Skibine, the acting principal deputy assistant secretary, said the Bush administration had no objections to H.R.673, to acquire land in trust for the Cocopah Tribe of Arizona, and H.R.2120, to acquire land in trust for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan. Both tribes have been waiting several years for BIA action on their requests.

In the case of the Cocopah, a bureaucratic snafu that Skibine was unable to explain has prevented the local the regional BIA offices from moving forward. The tribe wants to use the land for agricultural purposes and the bill prohibits gaming.

"We think it meets the needs of the tribe for increased economic development, housing and government affairs," Skibine testified.

For the Soo Tribe, a $41 million casino sits unused due to a delay going back the early 1980s, prior to the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Had the BIA acted in a more timely manner, the land could be used for gaming without going through yet another review process, Skibine said.

"We can proclaim the land to be a reservation for the tribe today but the problem with that is it will not authorize the tribe to have its gaming establishment on that land," Skibine testified.

The Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians also waited decades for an answer on its federal recognition petition. But since the BIA doesn't believe the tribe qualifies, Skibine said the agency won't support H.R.1575.

"The department has generally opposed legislative recognition of tribes that have failed to meet the criteria" contained in federal regulations, Skibine said.

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee support all three bills. In particular, they singled out the ability for Congress to determine which tribes maintain a government-to-government relationship with the United States.

"This Congress cannot yield its power to the executive branch," said Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Michigan), a co-sponsor of the Burt Lake recognition bill.

The two land-into-trust bills appear to be non-controversial even though one involves gaming. No other tribes have publicly objected -- and at least one supports the Soo Tribe measure -- and the states of Arizona and Michigan have not voiced opposition.

The Burt Lake bill faces a major challenge from House Republicans, who unsuccessfully tried to block two federal recognition bills from seeing votes. It's been more than six years since a tribe was recognized by an act of Congress and more than 10 years since debate on recognition took place on the House floor.

"Under the Republicans, we didn't do this, because we knew this is a corrupting process," Rep. Chris Shays (R-Connecticut) said last Thursday as the House approved a bill to recognize the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee has yet to take action on any of the land-into-trust bills or any of the federal recognition bills. The committee just lost its vice chairman, Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming), who died on June 4 after a battle with cancer.

Written Testimony:
Full Committee Legislative Hearing: H.R. 673, H.R. 1575 and H.R. 2120 (June 13, 2007)

Relevant Links:
House Resources Committee -