Indianz.Com Video: Tribal Homelands – White House Tribal Nations Summit
Tribal homelands bill back on agenda in ‘new era’ of Indian Country relations
Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Indianz.Com

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lawmakers are set to approve another round of Indian Country bills, including a long-anticipated yet controversial measure that will help tribes restore their homelands.

Four bills of interest are going to be considered in the U.S. House of Representatives starting on Wednesday, according to the Majority Leader’s calendar. All will be taken up under a suspension of the rules, a process typically used for legislation that’s expected to pass the chamber with bipartisan support.

But the last time the tribal homelands bill came up for a vote more than two years ago, the situation was hardly cause for celebration. That’s because former president Donald Trump — using language widely condemned as racist — encouraged fellow Republicans to vote against the measure, along with another one that benefited a tribe whose efforts were championed by the target of his misogynistic attack.

The landscape has changed dramatically since the May 2019 incident, which preceded Trump being kicked off the Twitter social media platform earlier this year for his role in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the home of the legislative branch of the federal government. A new Democratic president is leading the White House — with the first Native cabinet secretary on board — and Democrats control both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

Department of the Interior: Secretary Haaland Visits Alcatraz Island on the 52nd Anniversary of its Occupation

“We are in a new era,” Secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior, said earlier this month to commemorate the 52nd anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz Island, a seminal event in the fight for Indian rights.

“An era in which we can embrace our identities as Indigenous people and be proud of how much we have accomplished,” said Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna. “An era of real opportunities to engage with the federal government.”

After taking office in March, Haaland quickly took steps to reverse some of the negative actions implemented by the prior administration. She restored a legal opinion that helps address a disastrous decision from the U.S. Supreme Court, eliminated a roadblock facing Alaska Natives and removed procedural hurdles within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. More recently, her department engaged in consultations to protect and restore tribal homelands.

“That effort is a historic opportunity to provide clarity to the land-into-trust process,” Robert McGhee, the vice chair of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, said during the White House Tribal Nations Summit this month.

But the executive branch initiatives are only one part of the strategy, as Indian Country has long sought a permanent fix to the Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar. The ruling has made it more difficult for tribes across the nation to restore their homelands through the land-into-trust process at Interior.

“As you all know, the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Carcieri v. Salazar has upended the tribal land-into-trust process for more than a decade,” McGhee said on November 16.

Nearly 13 years after Carcieri, H.R.4352 provides the fix Indian Country is seeking, and in a bipartisan fashion. The bill, which is sponsored by an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, ensures that all tribes — regardless of the date of their federal recognition — can follow the land-into-trust process.

“Currently, tribes are working on a legislative fix and we would appreciate the administration’s support of these efforts in Congress,” McGhee told Secretary Haaland during the White House meeting. “That’s another vehicle.”

'My Land, My Future'
“My Land, My Future”: Native youth take part in a tribal homelands rally at the U.S. Capitol on November 14, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Carcieri injected uncertainty by requiring tribes to show they were “under federal jurisdiction” as of 1934 in order to restore their homelands. Opponents in Alabama have used the decision against the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, whose federal recognition wasn’t confirmed until 1984, five decades after the date cited in the case.

H.R.4352 resolves the long-running debate once and for fall by removing the clarifying that “any federally recognized Indian Tribe” can to through the land-into-trust process. And, to resolve any lingering doubts, any trust land acquisitions taken since 2009 are deemed to have been “ratified and confirmed” by Congress, a step that would prevent litigation and other challenges.

“For those of you who do not know us, the Mashpee Wampanoag people have lived in what is now southeastern Massachusetts since time immemorial, and we have been fighting to retain our homelands since our ancestors first welcomed and saved the Pilgrims from starvation,” Chairman Brian Weeden of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe said during a consultation on tribal homelands and last month.

“Despite our continued occupation of these same lands since before European contact, the federal government’s abject failure to protect our rights to our aboriginal territory directly resulted in our tribe becoming landless and unrecognized,” added Weeden, whose people were the target of Trump’s tirade back in May 2019.

But even though the House at the time eventually passed the Carcieri fix, as well as the bill benefiting the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the Senate never took up the legislation. But the situation there has shifted as well, with Democrats now holding a slight advantage in the chamber, which is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans.

“Taking land into trust is a critical component of the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal nations,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said following introduction of S.1901 back in late May.

“Since the Carcieri decision, tribes’ ability to rebuild and protect their homelands and promote economic development on those lands has suffered,” Schatz added. “The Supreme Court’s misguided decision has also increased litigation and created major delays in getting infrastructure projects off the ground. Congress must act to right this wrong. This bipartisan bill does just that, so I look forward to holding a hearing in the Indian Affairs Committee.”

While the committee has not yet held a hearing directly on S.1901, the measure has gained additional support in the Senate. A total of 15 lawmakers are currently backing it — 13 Democrats and two Republicans, including the junior senator from Alabama, where the Poarch Band of Creek Indians is headquartered.

In addition to H.R.4352, the House is slated to consider three more Indian Country bills this week. They follow:

H.R.2930, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, also known as the STOP Act. The bill addresses the illegal trafficking of tribal cultural items by facilitating their repatriation to tribal nations. It was written in response to an alarming number of auctions of tribal property taking place overseas.

H.R.897, the Agua Caliente Land Exchange Fee to Trust Confirmation Act. The bill places about 2,500 acres in southern California into trust for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. The lands are of cultural and historical importance to the tribe.

H.R.2074, the Indian Buffalo Management Act. The bill creates a permanent program at the Department of the Interior to help promote and develop tribal capacity to manage buffalo, or bison, herds.

In the past, bills considered under a suspension of the rules were almost always approved by voice votes. However, members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative lawmakers whose members routinely object to Indian Country legislation, have been asking for recorded roll calls.

Two Freedom Caucus members delayed passage of seven pro-tribal measures on November 1 by demanding the “yeas and nays” on bills that otherwise enjoy bipartisan and widespread support. All seven passed the House and one of them was signed into law by President Joe Biden just last week.

The legislative day begins at 12pm Eastern on Wednesday, according to the House Majority Leader’s calendar. The session can be viewed at live.house.gov or on C-SPAN.

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