Tribal leaders, however, characterized Sweeney as powerless when it comes to one of the federal government's most important trust obligations. Before she even arrived in the nation's capital, the authority to approve certain off-reservation acquisitions -- regardless of purpose -- was delegated to a higher ranking political official at Interior, they said. "By bringing that delegation to D.C. level, you've really caused us a burden,” said Janet Wak Wak Nicholson, a business council member for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, based in Washington state. The Bureau of Indian Affairs -- which Sweeney oversees -- should be able to make decisions for off-reservation acquisitions, at least for non-gaming purposes, according to tribal leaders. Those types of applications tend to be less controversial but the Trump administration's policy treats them all to the same heightened level of scrutiny. "We don't want this process to go into a black hole in Washington, D.C., and not know where these applications are," said Ron Allen, the chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe. Allen, who also serves as treasurer of NCAI, said his people have been told they are "14th in line" regarding a parcel of land near their reservation in Washington state. "I have a problem with that," he told Sweeney, urging her to find ways to ease the regulatory burdens within Interior.
Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney (Inupiat) is addressing the National Congress of American Indians 76th annual convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She’s first Alaska Native and only second woman to hold job. @NCAI1944 @ASIndianAffairs @USIndianAffairs pic.twitter.com/M7h0AESfme— indianz.com (@indianz) October 21, 2019
On a second homelands issue, Sweeney has been cut out of the loop entirely. A day after she was confirmed to her post by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate but before she had a chance to be sworn in, another higher-ranking political official put a halt to all land-into-trust applications in Alaska. More than a year later, tribal leaders said they have no idea what is going on. "We have an application in," said Randy Williams, a council member from the Ketchikan Tribe in southeast Alaska. "We have never heard anything from the BIA," Williams added. When it comes to tribes in her own backyard, Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native person to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, is just as in the dark. "It's under review -- that's all I have," Sweeney told multiple Native leaders from her state, some of whom she has worked with for decades. "I wish I had new information," Sweeney said.
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
The Trump administration pulled the plug on tribal homelands in Alaska without prior notice, following a hard-fought legal war during the Obama years, during which Interior was forced to change its position on the issue. The BIA followed up with tribal and Alaska Native corporate consultation sessions but there's been no word of progress since then. "Do you have an idea when we might be able to get the next step forward -- being treated like the rest of the tribes in the county?" asked Jackie Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit-Haida Tribes of Alaska who served as NCAI's most recent executive director for a record 18 years. "The only update that I have is that issue is still in the Solicitor's Office," Sweeney said, referring to an entity at Interior far out of her purview and, apparently, her influence. But even in policy areas where Sweeney seems authorized to make headway, she displayed a lack of concern. Lance Gumbs, the vice chairman of the Shinnecock Nation, noticed that she failed to bring up Carcieri v. Salazar, the decade-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that has hindered the restoration of homelands for tribes whose federal status may have only been recently acknowledged. "The Carcieri issue kinda wasn't mentioned your talk at all,” Gumbs said of an issue that has been on the minds of many in Indian Country since 2009. Despite Gumbs' request for clarification, Sweeney never said whether the Trump administration supports a "fix" to the Carcieri decision even though it's been a key priority of NCAI and nearly every other inter-tribal organization. Sweeney was just as evasive on another long-running issue: dual taxation of their lands by state and local governments. At the start of the Trump administration, tribal leaders though the BIA was moving forward with a fix to the problem, in the form of an update to the so-called Indian Trader regulations. The initiative, which tribes believe will bring significant benefits to their economies, mysteriously disappeared from the radar following the arrival of yet another higher-ranking political person at Interior later in the year. This particular official took charge shortly before President Donald Trump announced Sweeney as his Indian Affairs pick, effectively shutting her out before she even had a chance to get to the table. "We've been asking for this for a long time," recalled Henry Cagey, a council member from the Lummi Nation, based in Washington state, noting that his tribe believed addressing dual taxation was a priority for a Republican-led administration seemingly laser-focused on improving economies across America. "That work suddenly stopped for some reason," Cagey said on Monday. The official whose timing coincided with Indian Traders falling into a black hole is David Bernhardt, who started working as Deputy Secretary of the Interior in August 2017. He infamously told NCAI two years ago that Indian Traders was still a possibility under his watch.
The first land-into-trust application in Alaska was approved in January 2017. It was for a mere 1.08 acres. "This is a historic moment for Alaska tribes," one Native leader said at the time.https://t.co/2k81Japq8d pic.twitter.com/i7Gu6ipggp— indianz.com (@indianz) June 29, 2018
Despite the deep disconnects between tribes and the Trump administration, the news wasn't all bad from Washington. During her address at NCAI's annual meeting, which runs all week, Sweeney announced the first approval of an off-reservation casino under her watch at the BIA. Sweeney said the Tule River Tribe has her blessing to relocate the Eagle Mountain Casino to a more lucrative location near its existing reservation. The process, though, isn't over yet as the governor of California must still concur with what is known as a two-part determination before the project, which has been in the works for several years, can move forward. A different two-part determination was approved earlier in the Trump era for the Shawnee Tribe, before Sweeney came on board at the Department of the Interior. The Golden Mesa Casino opened its doors in Oklahoma in August, following more than a decade of work. Sweeney also said she approved a gaming development for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians but the tribe did not have to go through the two-part determination process because the land in question sits adjacent to its reservation in southern California. The casino in Cathedral City, which would be the third in the tribe's enterprise, has the support of the local government. "We are excited to begin construction on this large-scale investment in Cathedral City," Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe said earlier this month. "This project will create jobs, revitalize an undeveloped downtown property and support Cathedral City's economic development efforts."
At National Congress of American Indians 76th annual convention, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney announces federal approval of off-reservation casino for Tule River Tribe. Approval from California is needed before tribe can move existing casino to new site. pic.twitter.com/7kTz6eOOQa— indianz.com (@indianz) October 21, 2019