With Republicans in control of Congress, and a Republican in the White House, tribes fear their trust lands, resources and sovereignty will be targeted in Washington. So far, there's little to indicate that will happen but comments from top officials at the Department of the Interior have fostered uncertainty. In one of his first major speaking engagements after joining the Trump team, Secretary Ryan Zinke in early May suggested that some tribes are willing to have their lands taken out of trust and transferred to corporations. He described it as an "off-ramp" for Indian Country. Just a few days later, one of his top aides was forced to "set the record straight" after those comments gained widespread attention. In a letter to NCAI, Jim Cason, who serves as the Associate Deputy Secretary at Interior, said Zinke "supports tribal self-determination, self-governance, and sovereignty, and believes the federal government should meet its trust responsibilities." A month after that, Cason was still explaining the remarks. During NCAI's mid-year conference in Connecticut, he said Zinke was unfairly blamed for trying to revive the destructive federal policy of termination "The secretary didn't mean termination," Cason told tribal leaders on June 13. "He wasn't trying to imply that."
At the same time, Cason claimed that tribes are giving the administration mixed messages about their expectations. He said some want the BIA to "get out of the way" while others want the agency to exercise a stronger role in their communities, consistent with the government's treaty and trust responsibilities. "We know, as a political matter, that if we go from where we are today to an ability [for tribes] to have complete and independent control over [their] resources, we’re gonna get thumped for promoting termination and we don't want to be there," Cason added. "If there's a perception of termination, we gotta get rid of that," responded Ron Allen, the longtime chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe and the treasurer of NCAI. Leaders like Allen are pressuring the new administration to make the land-into-trust process a priority. They note the BIA placed more than 500,000 acres in trust during the administration of Barack Obama, a Democrat. "You already know all of that," Allen told Cason last month.
So far, neither Zinke nor Cason have committed to improving, streamlining or otherwise strengthening the land-into-trust process. Then again, neither has Congress -- efforts to address the U.S. Supreme Court decision Carcieri v. Salazar in a way that would reduce litigation and save taxpayer funds have gone nowhere in nearly a decade. Next week's hearing takes place before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs. The panel, which has jurisdiction over tribal issues, has moved very slowly in the 115th Congress, advancing just a handful of Indian bills and holding even fewer hearings. The July 13 hearing also boasts one of the committee's characteristically confusing and misleading titles -- "Comparing 21st Century Trust Land Acquisition with the Intent of the 73rd Congress in Section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act." The implication is that the BIA's current process does not match the goals of the 1934 law. Section 5 of the IRA authorized the land-into-trust process for tribes and individual Indians. House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing "Comparing 21st Century Trust Land Acquisition with the Intent of the 73rd Congress in Section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act" (July 13, 2017) Related Stories:
House committee again leaves out Indian Country in hearing on Interior Department (June 26, 2017)
Key House committee under fire for moving slowly on tribal agenda (June 21, 2017)
Hearing takes a swipe at tribal rights with no tribal leaders present (May 30, 2017)