The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians land-into-trust site, also known as Camp 4, in Santa Barbara County, California. Photo: Chumash Facts

Lawmakers advance another tribal land bill as Indian Country braces for change

An earlier version of this post incorrectly said H.R.1532, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Land Reaffirmation Act, had passed the House. The bill has been approved at the committee level but has not yet passed the House.

Another tribal homelands bill is taking a major step forward on Capitol Hill as the Trump administration considers changes widely opposed in Indian Country.

The House is set to pass H.R.1491, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Land Affirmation Act, on Tuesday afternoon. The bill places about 1,400 acres in California in trust for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

Lawmakers are advancing the measure under a suspension of the rules, according to the House majority leader's schedule. While there will be some debate, the procedure is typically used for non-controversial bills that are all but guaranteed to pass.

The tribe's efforts to restore its homelands, though, haven't always been well received. Officials from Santa Barbara County had to be prodded into talks with the tribe after facing criticism from members of Congress for refusing to come to the table.

"The tribe has been very, very patient in the process," Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California), the chairman of House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs and the sponsor of H.R.1491, said when the bill was considered at a markup session in July.

Those talks resulted in a significant achievement late last month. An landmark agreement between the tribe and the county addresses a wide range of issues affecting the land-into-trust site, known locally as Camp 4.

"Through the process and this agreement, I hope to building upon current positive government-to-government dialogue," Chairman Kenneth Kahn said during a October 31 special meeting to discuss the agreement, which the county's board of supervisors approved by a 4-1 vote. "This is in the best interests of citizens of the community and the members of our tribe."

Tribes occasionally enter into agreements with local communities when disagreements arise over land-into-trust applications or when they mutually want to resolve certain issues. The Bureau of Indian Affairs also solicits local, as well as state, input when considering applications.

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But tribes believe the Trump administration is fundamentally altering the review process, which takes years and, sometimes, even decades to complete. Proposed changes to the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151) will force them to enter into agreements, memorandums of understanding or other mechanisms with hostile interests, they say.

"We all here know, historically, that states look out for their interests and when we open ourselves up to interjecting MOUs in the fee-to-trust process, we now create another shackle within the tribal nations," Yavapai-Apache Nation Vice Chair Larry Jackson, Sr., told the new administration during a heated listening session last month. His tribe's once vast land base has been whittled down to about 1,850 acres in Arizona, he added.

Lana McCovey, a council member from the Yurok Tribe, voiced similar concerns. The tribe's reservation includes just a small portion of its original homelands but attempts to add important cultural and natural resource sites have been met with opposition in northern California, she said.

"What it has done for us is hold us hostage," McCovey said of attempts to negotiate with local governments. "We have counties not willing to enter into MOUs with us because they feel as though they are losing their taxes, that they believe they deserve money from us to provide services, which they don't provide."

John Tahsuda, a senior BIA official who joined the new administration in September, cautioned that agreements with other governments aren't required by the proposed changes. They are only one factor that will be considered during a new "two-phased" review process for a land-into-trust application, he told tribal leaders.

"We would do a change in what's required for the application itself, again, all with the purpose of trying to get a fuller view and being able to provide a more comprehensive consideration of the factors we are required to consider under the law and our regulations," Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe whose official title is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs but who also has been serving as the "acting" Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs because Tara Sweeney has not yet been confirmed as the BIA's permanent leader.

Still, widespread outrage prompted the Trump team to delay the changes. After tribes attending the National Congress of American Indians annual convention last month passed a resolution opposing the proposal and started reaching out to allies in Congress, three consultations that were to take place this month were postponed. A comment deadline that was set to close on December 15, right around the busy holiday season, also was extended.

"That's the kind of Christmas present you're going to give us? I don't think so," Ron Allen, the longtime chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe, and the treasurer of NCAI, said of the deadline.

The delay is only temporary. The BIA is expected to resume consideration of the rule in 2018 as the Trump administration moves into its second year.

Any changes in the process would not immediately impact the Chumash Tribe's land-into-trust application, which was formally approved on January 19, the last full day of the Obama administration. The review process took almost four years, during which local citizens -- bolstered by the county's opposition to the tribe -- held up consideration with an administrative appeal.

The county subsequently filed a lawsuit against the BIA in federal court, challenging the acquisition of the 1,400-acre site. The agreement approved last month requires the country to drop the case and support passage of H.R.1491.

So far in the 115th Congress, the House has easily passed at least three tribal land bills -- H.R.1306, the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act; H.R.597, the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act; and H.R.1404, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Land Conveyance Act. All were considered non-controversial in the chamber.

Yet none have been approved by the Senate, depriving President Donald Trump of the ability to sign his first stand-alone Indian bill.

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