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Another tribal homelands bill on the agenda in a heated political era

A bill to help the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians provide a stable homeland for its people is taking another step forward on Capitol Hill in an unusual political climate.

H.R.317, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Land Affirmation Act, confirms that about 1,400 acres in southern California remains in trust for the tribe and can't be challenged in court. The land will be used for housing, cultural and other purposes.

"There is nothing controversial about this bill," asserted Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-California), the sponsor of the measure, which enjoys support from Republicans and Democrats alike. "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," LaMalfa added, without mentioning the tribe has faced significant opposition at the local level to its efforts to acquire a property known as Camp 4.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: U.S. House of Representatives - H.R.317, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Land Affirmation Act - April 29, 2019

To the U.S. House of Representatives, the bipartisan H.R.317 was indeed non-controversial. The bill easily cleared the Democratic-controlled chamber on April 29 -- no one spoke against it and there was no need to conduct a recorded vote after it was brought up under a suspension of the rules.

The U.S. Senate is a different story. Though the chamber is in Republican hands, critics of the tribe have thanked members of the other party -- namely Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California), who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president -- for slow-walking the bill through Congress.

According to one local opponent, Harris and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who has a history of spreading misinformation about tribes, have ensured that the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Land Affirmation Act, undergoes "close examination and thoughtful consideration" in the Senate. In other words, the Democrats helped run out the clock on the bill during the last session of Congress even after it cleared the House, which at the time was under Republican control.

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians land-into-trust site, also known as Camp 4, in Santa Barbara County, California. Photo: Chumash Facts

But as Harris explains her record on tribal homelands issues when she served as attorney general of California, there are signs of progress. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is due to advance H.R.317 at a business meeting on Wednesday afternoon, a key step in the legislative process.

"I have always respected sovereignty of our tribes and I understand that tribal land is core to sovereignty," Harris said in a video message to the National Congress of American Indians that was timed with the release of her Indian Country platform.

Yet Harris isn't the only prominent politician whose views on Indian issues are contributing to the unusual climate. A few weeks after H.R.317 passed the House with little fanfare, President Donald Trump lashed out against a similar tribal homelands bill with a 24-word social media post that was aimed at one of his rivals -- Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), who happens to be another Democratic candidate for the White House.

Trump's use of a Native woman's name as a "racial slur" delayed consideration of H.R.312, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act. The bill's title and purpose are strikingly familiar -- it confirms that the reservation of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts remains in trust and can't be challenged in court.

Even even though supporters in the House regrouped and approved Mashpee a week later, the damage from Trump tweet's was done. Where Chumash had passed without incident, the president gave Republicans cause to revolt against H.R.312, which was forced to a recorded vote. Another homelands bill -- H.R.375, which benefits a wide range of tribes by correcting a destructive U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Carcieri v. Salazar -- was also placed under a cloud as a result of the controversy.

"H.R.375 and H.R.312 are two heads of the same snake, one large, one small," said Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona), a Trump ally who led opposition to both measures when they were brought up for debate on May 15. He characterized the Carcieri fix as a bill with a "national" impact.

Harris, incidentally, exploited the Carcieri in a negative fashion when she was California's top law enforcement official. In a closely-watched lawsuit, she attempted to have an 11-acre parcel taken out of trust for the Big Lagoon Rancheria because she argued that the tribe was not "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934.

According to the Supreme Court, only those tribes that were "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934, which is when the Indian Reorganization Act became law, can restore their homelands through the fee-to-trust process at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, rebuked Harris, calling her challenge untimely because she brought up the issue long after the land had been placed in trust for the tribe in 1994. She declined to take the case to the Supreme Court, putting an end to the matter while she mounted her high-profile campaign for the U.S. Senate.

During her time as attorney general, Harris opposed at least 15 tribal fee-to-trust applications, the late Dave Palermo reported for Pechanga.net in February 2014. Later that year, she questioned whether the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians was being thorough enough in connection with a casino expansion project that local critics were trying to derail. One of the opponents even thanked Harris for paying attention to a project that was taking place entirely on the reservation, seemingly out of the state's reach.

The background has given tribal leaders across the nation serious concerns about Harris and her campaign. She was asked about her Indian Country record during a series of roundtables in Michigan over the summer and again at the historic Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in August.

At both events, she gave a similar answers, insisting that she did not oppose the land-into-trust applications personally. She said was merely acting in service to her "client" -- meaning the governor of California.

"It was in that capacity," Harris told Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe at the presidential forum in Iowa, a key campaign state. "I was the lawyer for the governor and the governor made decisions about the fee-to-trust applications by California tribes."

"As the lawyer, the law officer, we had to file those letters but that was never a reflection, and has never been, a reflection of my personal perspective," Harris said in Sioux City on August 20.

The belated explanation, though, does not match what the office of then-governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, told Palermo back in 2014. According to the report on Pechanga.net, which is based in California and is one of the oldest Native-owned independent online media outlets in existence, neither Brown nor his Indian policy aides were aware of the opposition letters that Harris sent to the BIA at the time.

Despite the history, a prominent Indian voice from California, which is home to more tribes and more Native Americans than any other state, is siding with Harris. Marc Macarro, the long-serving chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, which has no official connection to the Pechanga.net site other than it being run by one of the tribe's citizens, announced his endorsement of her candidacy during NCAI's 76th annual convention.

"I have been fortunate to witness leaders who know and honor the government-to-government relationship," Macarro said on October 23 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "I believe that Kamala Harris of one of those leaders."

In her Indian policy platform, Harris is promising to uphold that relationship. As president, she is vowing to place at least 500,000 acres in trust, to support a legislative fix to Carcieri and to ensure the BIA "interprets the IRA as broadly as possible so all tribes can acquire trust lands."

Frank LaMere Presidential Forum: Kamala Harris - August 20, 2019

"We must acknowledge that the government of the United States stole land, took land from the tribes, and there must be a restoration of that ownership," Harris said via a live video feed at the Frank LaMere Presidential Forum in August. The crowd applauded her remarks.

Harris does not serve on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which is scheduled to consider the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Land Affirmation Act at a business meeting at 2:30pm Eastern on Wednesday. The meeting will be immediately followed by an oversight hearing on employment and training programs in Indian Country.

Note: Thumbnail photo of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California) by Gage Skidmore.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notices
Business Meeting to consider HR. 317, Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Land Affirmation Act of 2019 (November 6, 2019)
Oversight Hearing on “Examining the 477 Program: Reducing Red Tape While Promoting Employment and Training Opportunities in Indian Country.” (November 6, 2019)

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