Brian Cladoosby, the outgoing president of the National Congress of American Indians, during a more light-hearted moment at a Bureau of Indian Affairs listening session in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 16, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Tribes slam Trump administration for adding hurdles to land-into-trust process

Tribal leaders are lashing out at the Trump administration again, this time over rule changes they said will make it all but impossible to restore their homelands.

At a crowded listening session in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Monday morning, opposition was near unanimous. Tribal leaders repeatedly criticized the Bureau of Indian Affairs for seeking to add more hurdles to the land-into-trust process.

“We’re talking about doubling the burden on tribes in an already burdensome process," said Yavapai-Apache Nation Vice Chair Larry Jackson, Sr., who noted that his people's once broad land base has been whittled down to about 1,850 acres in Arizona. "It's about creating a burden on the tribal nations."

Brian Cladoosby, the outgoing president of the National Congress of American Indians, was equally critical. He said the proposal goes against the intent of the Indian Reorganization Act, the law passed by Congress in 1934 to reverse the disastrous effects of the allotment era, during which tribes lost 90 million acres of their territories.

"What I as a tribal leader am seeing is more burdens, more hoops to jump through," asserted Cladoosby, who serves as chairman of the Swinomish Tribe. His community lost out on a huge economic development opportunity in Washington because it took the BIA 10 years to process one land-into-trust application, he said.

But the most fiery remarks came from Ron Allen, the longtime chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, whose land base was essentially non-existent until it regained federal recognition nearly four decades ago. He questioned why the BIA is cutting off the comment period so close to the Christmas holiday.

"The timing is terrible," said Allen, who also serves as treasurer of NCAI. "That's the kind of Christmas present you're going to give us? I don't think so."

"Washington, D.C., is where things go to stop, quite frankly," Allen said. "And that's what this president said," he added, referring to Donald Trump.

He urged the Trump team to live up to a message previously voiced by Secretary Ryan Zinke and "get the hell out of the way” when it comes to respecting tribal sovereignty. The rule changes, he said, would encourage "anti-Indians" to file frivolous lawsuits to stop land acquisitions.

"You should be getting out of the way and recognizing the tribes' authority -- trust us," Allen said. "You're our trustee, trust us."

A summary of some of the proposed changes to the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151). Source: Bureau of Indian Affairs

John Tahsuda, the "acting" Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, did little at the session to counteract the critiques. He was mostly there to listen to the concerns, though he took a dramatically different view of the changes being proposed.

"To my mind, we are trying to streamline the process," said Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who joined the Trump team last month.

Tahsuda, whose official title at the agency is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, said the proposed rule would create a "two-phased" review for tribes seeking land away from existing reservations. They would be required to submit information about unemployment rates among their people, economic benefits of the potential acquisition to their people, evidence of "cooperative efforts" with nearby local governments and even whether the acquisition would have an economic impact on those communities.

While most criticized the additional steps as unnecessary, not everyone was bothered by the proposal, which was revealed to Indian Country earlier this month. Gus Frank, the chairman of the Forest County Potawatomi Community, was the lone speaker who welcomed the changes, which could help prevent rival tribes from opening new casinos in the Milwaukee region.

"The land that we’re standing on now used to be Potawatomi land," Frank said. His tribe's Potawatomi Bingo Casino is less than 2 miles from the convention center where the session took place.

Later in the afternoon, as NCAI opened its 74th annual meeting in the Wisconsin Center, Frank said he recognized that his comments could have been viewed as divisive. He acknowledged that some of his fellow leaders were "irate" about his support for the Trump administration's initiative.

"That's alright -- We don't always speak the same wavelength," Frank said, adding that the proposed rule has sparked "really heated conversations" in Indian Country.

So far, the BIA has scheduled just three consultations with tribes for the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151) and all of those meetings take place in the West. Critics are urging the Trump team to do more outreach in Indian Country.

"I don't know if you've forgotten that there are tribes east of the Mississippi," said Lance Gumbs, a citizen of the Shinnecock Nation, whose homelands were taken by the state of New York. He said the BIA needs to schedule consultations in the Northeast and in the Southeast.

The meetings are scheduled to take place November 14 in Seattle, Washington; November 16 in Sacramento, California; and November 29 in Phoenix, Arizona. The written comments are due by December 15 -- 10 days before Christmas.

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