The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians has been seeking to acquire 1,400 acres in trust in Santa Barbara County, California, for nearly a decade. Photo courtesy Santa Ynez Band

Another tribal provision submitted for inclusion in 'must pass' defense bill

The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians isn't the only one looking closely at a bill that typically isn't of intense interest in Native America.

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians might also benefit from passage of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. An amendment submitted for possible inclusion in the bill ensures the tribe's homelands in southern California remain in trust amid uncertainty in the Trump era.

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives already passed a bipartisan bill to do just that. H.R.317, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Land Affirmation Act, cleared the chamber by a unanimous voice vote in April.

"There is nothing controversial about this bill," Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California), who is the sponsor of H.R.317, said during debate on the measure on April 29. "It simply ensures the tribe has the ability to provide housing for its members. I can't think of anyone who really should take issue with that effort."

But the U.S. Senate, which is in Republican hands, has yet to take up the measure. A prior version in fact was slow-walked through the chamber during the last session due to concerns from opponents of the tribe's long-running effort to secure a more permanent homeland for its people.

Posted by Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians on Monday, July 1, 2019
The 1,400-acre property, known locally as Camp 4, will be use for housing, economic development, governmental and other purposes. The tribe is already producing wine from grapes grown on the property. The brand is marketed under the name Kita, meaning “our native oak," in the Samala language.

The situation could finally change with passage of H.R.2500, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, this week. LaMalfa has submitted an amendment -- which has strong bipartisan support -- that could wind up in the 1193-page package.

The defense bill is considered "must pass" legislation on Capitol Hill due to its subject matter. Lawmakers don't want their constituents upset about the failure to fund America's military.

That's a big reason why the Senate took quick action on S.1790, its version of the defense bill. The measure, which passed by a near unanimous vote of 88-8 on June 27, it included a federal recognition amendment for the Montana-based Little Shell Tribe, whose relationship with the U.S. has been in limbo for more than a century following failed treaty negotiations in the late 1800s.

"This is a proud day for our tribe and our allies," Chairman Gerald Gray said in a statement on social media at the time.

But Gray noted that H.R.2500 does not include the same amendment. So once the House passes the bill this week, it will have to be reconciled with the Senate version.

"Our bill will need to survive that reconciliation process in order to become law," Gray said of H.R.297, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act, which passed teh House on a stand-alone basis on March 26. "The timing of final passage will depend on how long that process takes but will likely be late July or after the August recess."

Native News 2018 / University of Montana School of Journalism: Being Little Shell

The same applies to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians should LaMalfa's amendment end up in the final package. Reconciliation with the Senate would also prevent the tribe from having to keep pushing for passage of the stand-alone homelands bill.

"It is a shame that it has taken almost a decade for this issue to be resolved, but now we are at the point where we can finally put an end to this process," Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (D-New Jersey) said during debate on H.R.317 in April.

The current version of tribe's land-into-trust application has been pending at the Bureau of Indian Affairs since the Obama administration. It was never completely finalized amid opposition in Santa Barbara County, a stalemate that angered key members of Congress.

The county eventually came to the table and negotiated a historic intergovernmental agreement with the tribe. But other opponents have kept the the 1,400-acre property, known locally as Camp 4, from being placed in trust through litigation.

“We continue to seek the opportunity to place our Camp 4 property in federal trust through legislation,” Chairman Kenneth Kahn said when H.R.317 was introduced in January. “We were successful in placing Camp 4 in federal trust through the BIA’s administrative process, and we’re confident that with the progress we’ve made over the last two years, the legislative process will be just as successful.”

The tribe, however, has seen its fortunes shift during the Trump administration. After a federal judge in February questioned the manner in which the Camp 4 application was approved in the final days of the Obama era, the new leader of the BIA quickly reaffirmed the prior decision to place the 1,400 acres in trust.

A month later, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, a Trump nominee, had a change of heart. On March 29, she withdrew her prior decision and said the BIA needs more time to assess whether endangered species -- the California condor and the willow flycatcher -- are impacted by the acquisition.

No timeline was given for a new decision. As a result, the tribe remains in limbo just like the Little Shell people, with Congress representing the most viable avenue for success.

The House Committee on Rules is meeting on Tuesday afternoon to start preparing H.R.2500 for debate on the floor of the chamber. Passage is expected by the end of the week, according to the House Majority Leader's calendar.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico): Radiation Exposure

Separate from the Chumash language, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico) has submitted an amendment to ensure that Native Americans affected by uranium development can qualify for compensation for being exposed to radiation. During the last session of Congress, similar proposals were rejected by the then-Republican leadership of the Rules Committee.

"In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to begin to right the wrong," Luján said on the House floor in May 2018. "However, we have since learned that there are many more individuals who are sick or dying because they worked in the uranium industry, lived near a mining operation, or lived downwind from a test."

"The Navajo, the Hopi, the Yavapai-Apache Indian Reservations are particularly affected," he said of tribal peoples living in Arizona and New Mexico.

"We have had Navajo elders travel out here to Washington, D.C. and ask us in Congress: 'Are you waiting for us all to die to solve this problem?'" Luján recalled.

House Committee on Rules Notice
H.R. 2500 - National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (July 9, 2019)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
'A proud day': Little Shell Chippewa Tribe moves closer to federal recognition (June 27, 2019)
'One step closer': Little Shell Chippewa Tribe optimistic on federal recognition (June 20, 2019)
Tribal land bills advance despite damage caused by Trump's 'racist' tweet (May 16, 2019)
Core group of Republicans vote against Indian Country bills (April 30, 2019)
Indian Country's legislative priorities inch forward in divided Congress (April 29, 2019)
House set to clear first Indian Country bills under Democratic control (March 22, 2019)
Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians vows to keep fighting for homelands (February 14, 2019)
Little Shell Chippewa Tribe seeks another shot at federal recognition (January 22, 2019)
'We still have a lot of work to do': Tribes unite as lawmakers promise action (September 13, 2018)
Little Shell Chippewa Tribe sees major progress on federal recognition bill (September 10, 2018)
Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians prevails in homelands litigation (September 5, 2018)
Another tribal recognition bill advances with Republican support (July 12, 2018)
Little Shell Chippewa Tribe sees progress on federal recognition bill (July 9, 2018)
Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians welcomes action on homelands bill (June 14, 2018)
Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians inches forward with homelands bill (June 11, 2018)
Tribal homelands hit a wall under President Trump after historic Obama era (April 25, 2018)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs takes up tribal homelands legislation (April 25, 2018)
Tribes secure hearing on homelands legislation amid drama on Capitol Hill (April 18, 2018)
Lawmakers advance another tribal land bill as Indian Country braces for change (November 28, 2017)
Federal recognition bill for six tribes in Virginia inches another step forward (September 13, 2017)
House approves land-into-trust bills for tribes amid concerns about process (July 14, 2017)
Little Shell Chippewa Tribe sees brighter future with Ryan Zinke at Interior Department (March 9, 2017)
Little Shell Chippewa Tribe continues long journey for federal status (02/09)
Clara Caufield: Ryan Zinke brings tribal record to table at Interior (01/04)
Gabriel Furshong: Little Shell Chippewa Tribe still waiting for federal recognition (12/20)
Republican lawmaker with a better tribal record tapped for Interior Secretary (12/15)
Montana and Virginia tribes 'duped' with federal recognition bill (09/16)
House committee advances controversial federal recognition bill (09/09)
Trending in News
More Headlines