The Interior Secretary’s power to take land into trust for tribes could create pockets of Indian Country across Alaska. Tribes see it as an opportunity to control their own territory and improve village safety. Others see it as the reservation model that Alaskans rejected in the land claims settlement act 44 years ago. Outside the state, land-into-trust is controversial, too. Alaska Congressman Don Young presided over a testy hearing Thursday on the subject.
Early in the hearing, Congressman Young called out tribal advocates sitting in the audience. Young said people from the National Congress of American Indians were trying to undermine him and his work on the Indian Affairs subcommittee, and pouring gasoline on a political fire:
“I’m going to suggest we play ball straight. This is not to start an issue or try to destroy the effects of this committee. I hope everybody understands that. Because I do not forgive very well …. Not once have I not served the American Indians and Alaska Natives.”
Young, chairman of a subcommittee on Indian Affairs, says he just wants to create uniform standards, so the Interior Secretary doesn’t have total discretion on when to take lands into trust. But Young’s recent hearings on the subject, and memos from his subcommittee staff, have riled Indian Country.
Kevin Washburn, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, says he worries Young’s vision is a return to the darkest days of federal Indian policy. Washburn also spoke of an attack on tribal sovereignty and urged Young not to join it.
“I respectfully ask you not to take this path. If you take this path against the people of Indian Country, the Obama Administration will be standing shoulder to shoulder with tribes as they fight you on this.”
The secretary’s land into trust power was granted by Congress in 1934. Washburn says the goal was to make up for previous federal policy and re-establish tribal jurisdiction on some of the 90 million acres tribes lost.
“Now admittedly, Interior’s power to take land into trust (was used) only rarely during the previous presidential administration,” Washburn said. “But when President Obama came into office, he made restoring tribal homelands one of his highest priorities. So Interior dusted off the power and began taking land into trust again.”
He says the administration is more than halfway to its goal of accepting half a million acres in trust before it leaves office. Washburn, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, thanked Young for letting his views known so voters can choose come election time.
“You’ve made plain your concerns about tribal governments. And you’ve not hidden your prejudices, and I respect that because although I disagree with you, I’m glad you’re not running from your convictions,” he said.
Young both scolded Washburn and showed him respect. The Congressman says he just wants to make it fair for all tribes that want to put land in trust.
“Why would you object to that?” Young asks.
“Well, because there’s no tribe that’s asking for that, chairman. There’s not a single tribe that wants you to pass a law –,” Washburn said, before Young cut in.
“Now wait a minute. That’s not true,” Young said. “There are tribes that say we need to know why we were turned down. It’s because of the discretion of the secretary, the BIA.”
In Alaska, a judge’s order, for now, prevents the Secretary from accepting land into trust, but the administration is ready with new Alaska-specific rules once the case is resolved.