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Agriculture bill a point of contention for Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes

WASHINGTON - Late this summer, the House and Senate passed their own versions of the FY2001 Agriculture Appropriations bill which differed in two key areas important to American Indian tribes.

The Senate version contains language objectionable to the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, as well as funding increases for grants under the Indian Rural Community Advancement Program, while the House version contains neither.

Under the Senate bill, a new provision would prohibit the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma from claiming ancestral land under a surplus property law. The rider, attached at the request of Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., is identical to one imposed last year after the tribes filed claim to land at Fort Reno, Okla., under the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act. The law enables governmental entities to claim surplus land such as military facilities like Fort Reno.

The rider prohibits the ability of the Secretary of Agriculture to "declare excess or surplus" lands owned by the federal government at Fort Reno without the authorization of Congress.

In an open letter to Congress, the Cheyenne and Arapaho ask members to remove the rider and bring greater fairness to the process.

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"Removal of Section 733 would allow the Secretary of Agriculture to make a legal and policy determination under existing law that is open to all Americans and that has been closed individually against only the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes," they stated.

The tribes claim the land contains burial, ceremonial, and gathering grounds they deem sacred.

Although the provision concerning the Cheyenne and Arapaho would negatively impact that tribe, the funding increases under the Indian Rural Community Advancement Program offer a big boost to many rural communities across Indian country.

The increases, offered by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., would double funding for the Indian Rural Community Advancement Program and allocate funds through grants for specific rural development needs on Indian lands. It would provide $2.5 million, half of the FY2001 budget request, for extension agents on Indian reservations and set aside $15 million for the program.

"Senator Bingaman is looking to hold these funding levels in conference," said Dan Alpert of Bingaman's office.

When Congress returns in September, the differences between the two bills will be worked out in conference committee. If passed in the Senate form, the president has threatened to veto the bill.