John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with the Kiowa Black Leggings Warrior Society in Washington, D.C., on November 1, 2017. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior Press Secretary

Trump administration delays roll-out of controversial trust land rule after uproar

In a temporary victory for Indian Country, the Trump administration is delaying the roll-out of controversial changes to the land-into-trust process.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs announced the proposal in early October and was immediately met with opposition. Tribal leaders said the changes, which were developed without their input, would make it nearly impossible for them to acquire new homelands.

“We’re talking about doubling the burden on tribes in an already burdensome process," Vice Chairman Larry Jackson, Sr. of the Yavapai-Apache Nation said at the BIA's first listening session barely two weeks ago. "It's about creating a burden on the tribal nations."

The listening session was to be followed by three tribal consultations. But the BIA is rescheduling those meetings, which tribes said posed additional hurdles because they were due to take place in Western states. None had been scheduled in the Great Plains, Oklahoma, the Northeast or the Southeast.

"I don't know if you've forgotten that there are tribes east of the Mississippi," Lance Gumbs, a citizen of the Shinnecock Nation who serves as a regional vice president for the National Congress of American Indians, said at the October 16 listening session.

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During NCAI's 74th annual convention that same week, tribal leaders were quickly mobilizing to thwart the changes. They passed a resolution opposing the proposal and started reaching out to allies in Congress.

As the conference wound down, there were signs from the Trump team that the message was being heard. The second highest-ranking official at the Department of the Interior, the parent agency of the BIA, spoke to attendees and promised to schedule a consultation on the East Coast.

"We are confirming locations and dates," a BIA spokesperson said on Friday of the forthcoming schedule.

In addition to coming up with a new schedule, the BIA will be extending the comment period on the changes. Tribes had initially been told to submit comments by December 15, right in the middle of the busy holiday season. A new date will be announced soon.

Despite the delay in the roll-out, the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151) remain on the table. The BIA plans to create a "two-phased" system that will require tribes to submit more information about their off-reservation land-into-trust applications.

For example, tribes would have to explain 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.

"To my mind, we are trying to streamline the process," John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe who serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the BIA, said last month. He is the highest-ranking political official at the agency.

Congress authorized the land-into-trust process through the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The law was written to address the disastrous effects of the allotment era, during which tribes lost 90 million acres of their homelands because of federal policy.

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