Chairman Cedric Cromwell of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe addresses the 75th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians in Denver, Colorado, on October 23, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

National Congress of American Indians unites in face of termination threat

By Acee Agoyo

DENVER, Colorado -- Indian Country continues to stand behind the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose homelands are slated to be taken out of trust by the Trump administration.

"The termination era is going be reintroduced,” Chairman Cedric Cromwell told hundreds of tribal leaders who are gathered here for the 75th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians.

"It's a very horrifying situation that's happening with my tribe," Cromwell said on Tuesday.

The unprecedented decision was made by Tara Sweeney, the new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the Trump administration. Less than two months into the job, she determined that the tribe -- whose ancestors welcomed some of the first settlers to the Americas more than 300 years ago -- could not have its homelands restored through the land-into-trust process.

But during her first appearance before NCAI just a day prior, Sweeney appeared to disclaim full responsibility for the "horrifying situation" facing the People of the First Light. She told tribal leaders that she had little choice in the matter.

"I walked into this decision," Sweeney said on Monday, as NCAI opened its conference in the same city where tribal leaders came together in 1944 to fight threats to their sovereignty, including termination of their trust lands.

Sweeney, though, did not pin the blame for the decision on herself or on higher-level officials at the Department of the Interior. Instead, she said the fault lies with Carcieri v. Salazar, the decade-old U.S. Supreme Court case that created uncertainty in the tribal homelands process.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney addresses the 75th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians in Denver, Colorado, on October 22, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

"Carcieri had boxed DOI into a corner," she said of the ruling, which held that a tribe must have been "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934 in order to benefit from the land restoration provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act.

Sweeney further confused tribal leaders when she was asked whether the Trump administration supports the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act. The bill, if enacted into law, would prevent the tribe's reservation in Massachusetts from being taken out of trust.

Even though the Bureau of Indian Affairs already sent a senior official to Capitol Hill to testify about the bill, Sweeney appeared to be completely in the dark. She had not yet been sworn into her position at the time of the July 24 hearing, though she had already won Senate confirmation by then.

"We have not been asked whether or not we would be supportive until now," Sweeney said, after asking her top aide -- Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary John Tahsuda, who has been on the job since June 2017 -- for more information about the bill while she was on the NCAI stage.

"Generally, we would be inclined to support it," Sweeney added, after struggling to come up with a clear response.

Cromwell found the explanation disingenuous. In advance of the July 24 hearing, the tribe was told that the Trump administration was going to endorse the measure, he said, only to find out that the testimony had changed -- the BIA instead declined to offer a firm position.

“Our trustee walked away from us," Cromwell said at NCAI.

Cedric Cromwell, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council Chairman Second General Assembly, Protecting Our Land: Land Into Trust National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) 75th Anniversary Convention & Marketplace in Denver, CO #StandWithMashpee Visit: Please call your Congressional Leadership and urge them to pass HR5244 "Mashpee Reservation Reaffirmation Act"

Posted by Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe on Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe on Facebook: Chairman Cromwell at NCAI

The situation has tribal leaders across the nation alarmed. Many fear that the decision reflects a lack of commitment within the Trump administration to support the restoration of their homelands, one of the key pillars of self-determination.

"We don't want to go backwards on those efforts that we made over the years," Mike Williams, a leader of the Akiak Native Community from Sweeney's home state of Alaska, told the Assistant Secretary on Monday, adding that his tribe stands in "full support" of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act.

Data shown to tribal leaders on Tuesday indicates that the Trump administration has indeed shifted course when it comes to the land-into-trust process. Since January 2017, the BIA has placed an average of 12,800 acres a year in trust, according to attorney Larry Roberts, who served at the agency during the Obama era.

In comparison, he said the BIA placed an average of nearly 68,000 acres a year in trust during the Obama years. Tribal homelands had the support of top officials at the Department of the Interior, as well as the president himself, he added.

So what has changed in Washington, D.C., Roberts asked at NCAI? "Leadership changed," he said.

Throughout the first two days of NCAI's 75th annual convention in Denver this week, attendees have repeatedly spoken in support of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. Everyone stood in unity when Chairman Cromwell asked for support and tribal delegates voted unanimously on Tuesday for NCAI to submit an amicus brief in a new lawsuit that was filed by the tribe against the Trump administration.

"That’s sovereignty," Cromwell said. "That means we’re in control."

To further support its homelands, the tribe will be hosting a Land Sovereignty Walk/Rally in Washington on November 14. Cromwell said the march will begin at the National Museum of the American Indian and end at the U.S. Capitol.

“We’re going to march and walk," Cromwell said.

The House version of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act is H.R.5244. The House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs took testimony on the bill during the hearing on July 24. The next step would be a markup session before the entire House Committee on Natural Resources.

The Senate version of the bill is S.2628. It has not yet received a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

According to Mike Andrews, the Republican majority staff director for the committee, there are some "roadblocks" facing the bill in the Senate. He did not offer specifics but expressed some optimism after being asked about the status of the measure.

"I think you'll see the Mashpee bill move forward" once those roadblocks are addressed, Andrews said at NCAI on Monday.

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