The Interior Department recently finalized its long-awaited and much-anticipated ''refined'' Section 20 regulations which are scheduled to take effect later in June. It appears that the effort was intended to conclude just around the same time as Assistant Secretary Carl Artman's resignation May 23. Whew, made it.
This late, departing ''accomplishment'' should not dim the memory of Indian country and in any way excuse the travesty that should serve as the real legacy of Mr. Artman and the Kempthorne administration, the department's newly adopted ''guidance policy'' for land in trust acquisitions.
The story of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has been told and retold over the course of the past several months. To be sure, it is a compelling case and certainly one that is far from reaching its conclusion. In summary, our tribe's land in trust application was formally denied by the DOI in early January.
They based their decision solely upon a newly created ''commutability'' standard that was first introduced by Artman in the late hours Jan. 3, and in the form of an ''internal'' guidance memorandum. The department used the memo to deny our application the next day. After more than 10 years of hard work, great financial expense and a series of incredible achievements, our tribe was issued a denial that came without notice, without consultation, without publication and, for all intents and purposes, without the administrative ability to appeal.
Notwithstanding this fact, Interior, should it choose to do so, has proven that it does know how to implement regulations properly and in accordance with the law. Hence, the recently announced and newly adopted Section 20 regulations. In this particular instance, it was a several-year-long process that was concise, deliberative and quite comprehensive.
For the most part, it was an inclusive process that invited tribes to participate, comment and challenge the direction of the proposed regulations. Ironically, this was also the very process that was blatantly, arrogantly and illegally denied to the Mohawks and other affected tribes who received ''151'' denials earlier this year.
It is a well-known fact that only four short years ago, high-ranking Interior officials formalized the position of the department regarding off-reservation gaming land acquisitions. In what has become known as the DOI's ''Indian Gaming White Paper,'' the issue of ''commutability'' was thoroughly addressed in the lengthy and comprehensive ''internal'' memorandum.
The unanimous and conclusive determination was made that ''commutable distance'' should not be a factor for review by political appointees within federal agencies but left instead to the lawmakers of Congress to decide. Huh?
The debate surrounding the ''guidance policy'' debacle will certainly continue and even escalate over the months to come. You can be assured that the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe will not be sitting quietly in the corner.
- Lorraine White
St. Regis Mohawk Tribal CouncilAkwesasne, N.Y.