The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians is seeking to have about 1,400 acres in southern California placed in trust. The site, located in Santa Barbara County, is known locally as Camp 4. Photo: Chumash Facts

Tribes secure hearing on homelands legislation amid drama on Capitol Hill

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), a long-serving member of the House, often refers to the Senate as the "dark hole" because it's where bills sometimes go to die. When it comes to tribal homelands legislation, it looks like he is right.

Since the start of the 115th Congress in January 2017, the House has passed six tribal homelands bills. That latest came on Monday, when the chamber approved H.R.146, the Eastern Band Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act, with strong bipartisan support.

"Even today, as I have fought for our Native Americans in our great state of Tennessee, we had to overcome stereotypes," Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tennessee), the sponsor of the bill, said of his effort to return land promised to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

"People said: 'Oh, gosh, they want to have a casino,'" Fleischmann continued. "We said: 'No.' This is a return of their sacred homeland over their sacred capital."

Fleischmann on H.R. 146, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act

ICYMI: Although I was contacted by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians years ago, their story begins long before. Last night, I had the privilege to share part of the story of the Eastern Band of Cherokee on the House Floor, a story that formed the foundation of my bill #HR146, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act. Shortly after, the people’s House voted to do the right thing and honor Cherokee tradition. WATCH:

Posted by Congressman Chuck Fleischmann on Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tennessee) on Facebook: H.R.146, the Eastern Band Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act

But while the Senate has remained busy with its Indian Country agenda, the legislative body has only passed one tribal homelands bill since January 2017. That was H.R.1306, the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act, which became law in January after first seeing action in the House.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs now has a chance to catch up. The panel will take up two tribal homelands bills at a hearing next week.

Both H.R.597, the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act, and H.R.1491, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Land Affirmation Act, already passed the House. H.R.597 places about 940 acres in trust for the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians in northern California, while H.R.1491 places about 1,400 acres in trust for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians in the southern part of the state.

Both bills cleared the chamber under a suspension of the rules, meaning they were considered non-controversial. The comparable procedure in the Senate is unanimous consent.

Typically, every Indian bill passes the Senate with unanimous consent. That means every member has agreed to support it, or at least has agreed not to stand in the way.

But as a key Democrat pointed out this week, the cooperative spirit was broken when the chamber took up the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act through a procedure that required Indian Country to clear a huge hurdle. The controversial bill, which exempts tribes from federal labor law, needed 60 votes to advance, a big task in the deeply-divided Senate, especially during a heated election year.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: "It's Shameful" -- Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) on Indian Country Legislation in the 115th Congress

"Let me repeat that: for the first time in 10 years, this chamber just debated an Indian Affairs bill using valuable floor time -- not unanimous consent," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, said in an impassioned speech on Monday evening, after the bill failed to clear the higher hurdle.

Udall also lent credence to Young's complaints of the Senate being a "dark hole." In the last decade, he said his chamber -- whether under Republican and Democratic control -- has allowed Indian legislation to be "sidelined."

"Important legislation that touches the lives of Native veterans, Native families, and Native communities – from Maine to Hawaii, from Florida to Alaska – makes it out of the Indian Affairs Committee only to die waiting on the Senate legislative calendar, often due to objections by one or a small handful of Senators," said Udall, who didn't name names about colleagues who have held up bills like a reuauthorization of the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Assistance Act.

Udall subsequently released a letter in which he called on Republican leaders to take action on a slew of health care, education and other Indian bills that enjoy bipartisan support. Though he didn't specifically list H.R.597 or H.R.1491, he has supported efforts to help tribes restore their homelands.

The hearing on H.R.597 or H.R.1491 takes place on Wednesday, April 25. A witness list hasn't been posted online yet.

Both bills seek to ratify decisions already made by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to place land in trust for the Lytton Rancheria and for the Santa Ynez Band. Passage of the legislation would help protect the tribes, and the federal government, from protracted litigation against their land-into-trust applications,

Both measures include limitations on the tribes' ability to use the lands for gaming. One provision in the Lytton bill is time-based, meaning the tribe has to wait until 2037 to consider gaming in a certain portion of the land-into-trust site. A second provision is an outright prohibition on gaming on different portion of the site.

The provision in the Santa Ynez bill is an outright prohibition as well.

If both tribes were to complete the land-into-trust process at the BIA, they would not be subject to such restrictions. But gaming prohibitions in homelands bills have become common in hopes of assuaging opponents.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing to Consider H.R. 597 & H.R. 1491 (April 25, 2018)

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