A Samish Nation drum. Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation

Samish Nation celebrates approval of land-into-trust application

By Acee Agoyo

It took more than eight years but the Samish Nation has finally secured approval of a land-into-trust application in Washington state.

And though the decision is for a relatively small parcel of 6.70 acres, the tribe is celebrating the historic action. In the past 22 years, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has only ever approved one other application for the tribe.

“The Samish Indian Nation is grateful that the BIA rendered this decision to take land into trust for the tribe,” Chairman Tom Wooten said on Tuesday. “After decades of working to restore our land base, this is a milestone in our efforts to revitalize our community. This determination ensures there is a permanent tribal land for our future generations.”

The tribe has been trying to rebuild its land base ever since being placed back on the BIA's list of federally recognized Indian nations in 1996. For unexplained reasons, the tribe had been excluded since the 1960s, even though Samish ancestors participated in treaty negotiations with the United States and maintained relations with the government.

But the process has been slow moving. The tribe's first application was approved only after a nearly wait of nearly 10 years, and only after members of Congress had called in the BIA for questions back in June of 2009.

"To date, that 78-acre parcel is the only land that is held in trust for the tribe," Wooten said in testimony to Congress a year ago.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs - Legislative Hearing on Bills to Empower Indian Tribes, Promote Self-Determination - November 15, 2017

Wooten appeared before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs to tell lawmakers that the BIA's fee-to-trust process still wasn't working for the tribe. An official from the Trump administration acknowledged the long waits when asked about the tribe's multiple, pending applications.

"They are still being worked through our legal counsel," John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, told lawmakers at the November 15, 2017, hearing. "There are very complicated legal issues."

The long-awaited decision resolves one of those legal issues. According to the BIA's Northwest region, the tribe can follow the land-into-trust process because it was "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934.

“We deeply appreciate the efforts of Brian Mercier, BIA’s Northwest Regional Director, and the other Interior officials for their commitment, steadfastness, and determination to ensure that the tribe was treated fairly in this long, arduous process,” Wooten said of the November 9 determination for the 6.70-acre parcel.

The issue arose because of the uncertainty surrounding the tribe's federal status in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Carcieri v. Salazar. Though Tahsuda said the case "unfortunately catches up tribes with a history like Samish," Congress has failed to enact a fix to the ruling in the last decade.

The inaction has led a number of tribes back to Capitol Hill. At the hearing last November, lawmakers took testimony on H.R.2320, the Samish Indian Nation Land Conveyance Act, which would place 17 parcels totaling nearly 97 acres in trust for the Samish Nation.

"I would look at a 13-year time period as pretty long, frustrating for any tribe," Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California), the outgoing chairman of the subcommittee, said of the long waits facing the Samish Nation.

Despite favorable and bipartisan reception for H.R.2320, the bill has not advanced amid opposition from other tribes. But neither have a slew of other land-into-trust bills: while four such bills have passed the House since the start of the 115th Congress, none of them have cleared the Senate. Only a few weeks remain in the current session, which has seen Indian Country's legislative agenda fall behind.

The Samish Nation has no plans to change the use of the 6.70-acre parcel, which lies adjacent to the 78-acre property that was previously placed in trust. The land is located in Skagit County, close to Lake Campbell.

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