The land-into-trust regulations and the reorganization were among the policy disasters that NCAI President Jefferson Keel singled out in the 17th annual State of Indian Nations earlier in the week. Though Bernhardt did not watch the speech in person, two officials from Interior were in the audience, and they heard the strong rebuke of the decisions being made at their department during the tenure of former Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned after facing questions about his ethics. "The federal government's policy for tribal lands needs to put the interests of tribal nations first -- and no one else's," Keel asserted. The land-into-trust process was authorized by Congress after the failures of the disastrous allotment period, during which tribes lost 90 million acres, often through shady actions. The 151 proposal that was initiated under Zinke's watch would have made it all but impossible to correct those mistakes, critics said. Of the reorganization, which Zinke announced on his first day of the job, Keel called it "rushed and ill-conceived." He said it was largely developed "without tribal input and against our declared wishes." "This effort has featured alarming changes made with no consultation or explanation," said Keel, who also serves as lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation.
Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt says the reorganization of the Department of the Interior will not change the regions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education. “I can assure you that they will remain intact.” #ECWS19 @DOIDepSec pic.twitter.com/I4tZbuHhRH— indianz.com (@indianz) February 13, 2019
In spite of Bernhardt's apparent concessions, Indian Country leaders remain wary of an administration where they have seen few positive gains and one in which the White House has severely stumbled with its outreach. Will Micklin, a vice president of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes, said he was "very happy" to hear about the death of the 151 proposal but he insisted on holding Interior accountable to the promise received at the meeting. "We’ll make sure we follow up on that," responded Keel, who noted that he was already planning to meet with Bernhardt to discuss a wide range of Indian Country's priorities and concerns. "He's given me his word that we will do everything we can to get things accomplished," Keel added. Micklin further pointed out that Bernhardt was silent on a major issue affecting tribes in Alaska. Without consultation or advance notice, Interior last June put a stop to the land-into-trust process in the state pending further review. The BIA has since held consultation and listening sessions -- including some attended by Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native woman to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs -- to gather input on the issue. Eight months later, Micklin said the hold has morphed into an unwanted "moratorium" that was imposed on tribes without their consent. "They tell us that they have not stopped processing fee-to-trust applications for Alaska tribes but if you never finish, it's the equivalent of a moratorium," Micklin said of the Trump administration's ongoing review, which has already included 12 sessions, with even more being held next month before the close of the comment period on March 15. "They're just not doing it," Micklin said of the lack of action on pending homeland applications in Alaska, where tribes were denied the ability to participate for decades. "We see no progress."
Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt is dropping a controversial land-into-trust proposal that tribes have opposed. “I have no interest in modifying our 151 regulations unless you want them changed so we are not going to go forward with that matter.” #ECWS19 @DOIDepSec pic.twitter.com/TahtDINtjx— indianz.com (@indianz) February 13, 2019
Talk of a land-into-trust moratorium revives old wounds that Indian Country suffered during the George W. Bush era. Tribes saw a virtual halt to their applications in what they saw as punishment for the Cobell trust fund lawsuit. One senior official eventually admitted the department wasn't eager to acquire more trust lands because of Cobell and other trust-related litigation. That person -- Jim Cason -- has since returned to Interior to serve the Trump administration in the same role as Associate Deputy Secretary. Bernhardt also held key positions at Interior during the same time. He was a counselor to then-Secretary Gale Norton, who was the first woman in the job, and later became Solicitor, the highest-ranking legal official at the department. Many leaders and advocates felt that the proposed 151 regulations, along with other efforts to restrict new trust land acquisitions, showed that Indian Country was once again being punished for the government's sins. The chief of the Mohegan Tribe last summer told Cason point blank that he was exhibiting signs of "Cobell PTSD," a phrase that some Indian law and policy figures have been using to describe their dealings with the Trump team. acrimony of Cobell and other trust matters, he said he viewed his prior tenure at Interior as valuable. "It was difficult time for the relationship between the office of the Secretary of the Interior and the NCAI," Bernhardt said. He didn't outright mention that the Bush team effectively boycotted the nation's largest inter-tribal organization for several months after trust reform talks broke down. "However, it was an extremely educational time for me," Bernhardt added, saying that he was able to learn directly from tribal leaders about the federal government's trust and treaty responsibilities. Besides tribal leaders, he said Neal McCaleb, who resigned as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs after coming under a cloud for his role in Cobell, and Ross Swimmer, who served as Special Trustee for American Indians despite having an extremely poor reputation in Indian Country, were influential figures to him.
WOW. A day after hailing the "historic" addition of an Alaska Native to the team, the Trump administration has withdrawn -- pending "further review" -- an Obama-era legal opinion that affirmed the rights of tribes in Alaska to restore their homelands https://t.co/q89IVhGRpi pic.twitter.com/1i4KrcDMRo— indianz.com (@indianz) June 29, 2018
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