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Tulsa council member sounds a Carcieri-steeped battle cry

WASHINGTON – On the heels of a Supreme Court decision that complicates land into trust matters for tribes, a policymaker from Tulsa, Okla. is organizing a fight against the land into trust interests of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

City Councilor Bill Christiansen is currently drafting a resolution against efforts by the Muscogee Nation to work with the BIA to place two parcels of land into federal trust.

Christiansen, who is the president of an aviation company, said the resolution is needed because the city would lose more property and sales taxes if the BIA grants more land into trust for the tribe. He said the city has already lost much money due to the tribe’s non-taxable existence, yet the city still has to pay for public services that benefit tribal members.

He also worries that the tribe could build a mall on the lands in contention, which would compete with facilities in the city that pay property and other taxes.

“I love the Indians and the casinos and the good that they do and their job creation,” Christiansen said. “The reality is that over the long term, the city’s ability to provide services for the citizens of Tulsa could be negatively affected.”

Christiansen said he has heard from numerous constituents who support his move, but he does not know how many other city council members would be supportive.

The councilman’s views mirror those of Lawrence Long, chairman of the Conference of Western Attorneys General and attorney general of South Dakota.

Long recently testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that each BIA acquisition obtained on behalf of tribes has two immediate consequences – reducing local tax revenues, and stopping local governments from enforcing zoning rules.

The heightened concern from state and local officials over trust lands has some tribal leaders and legal officials mulling Christiansen’s promise of a resolution, especially in light of the February Carcieri v. Salazar Supreme Court ruling. The decision found that the BIA could not put land into trust for tribes that were not under federal recognition in 1934 at the time of the Indian Reorganization Act.

Christensen wasn’t aware of the high court’s decision when he first publicly announced his plans to draft a resolution in early July. However, he said an associate recently told him about the ruling, which has gotten him thinking about the city’s ability to pursue a legal route against the Muscogee Nation to see that it doesn’t get any more land put into trust.

“That’s going to have to be reviewed,” Christiansen said of the decision. “I’m not the mayor of Tulsa, but I do not believe that any of these area tribes had standing before 1934. That could have big ramifications.”

While a city council resolution would be non-binding if it did pass, it could still be a tool in the interest of pursuing legal action, Christiansen added, promising he would also write letters to state politicians.

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When asked what he makes of those who say that all lands should be given back to tribes, since Native Americans owned all land in the U.S. before colonization, Christiansen said it is a difficult argument for him to understand.

“To be able to go into a city like Tulsa, Okla. and to pick and choose what they want to take, what’s to stop them from taking our biggest commercial sales tax generator, Woodland Hills Mall?” Christiansen asked. “And saying, ‘Oh we want to make this sovereign land’ – there goes all of our sales tax revenue. Where does it stop?”

The councilor said his resolution would be put up for review by the whole council in late-July.

The injection of states and local parties into the mix after the Carcieri ruling has long been anticipated by tribal officials. Many have predicted that states and localities could spend much money fighting tribes over land trust issues.

Some tribal officials and members of Congress believe legal fights could be curbed if Congress were to quickly amend the IRA in such a way that it would reflect all tribes – those recognized both before and after 1934.

Certain Congress members and Obama administration officials are currently in the process of deciding how they will respond to Carcieri.

Christiansen’s resolution is one indication to tribal and legal officials that localities and states are gearing up for a fight, either on legal grounds, or by lobbying Congress members to support the Supreme Court’s ruling based on city and state economic arguments.

Matthew L.M. Fletcher, director of the Michigan State University Indigenous Law Center, believes Christiansen and other state and local officials “smell blood in the water.” He said some tribes recognized after 1934 have already faced legal questions about the status of their lands that have already been placed into trust.

Muscogee tribal leaders have not publicly said if they are concerned that Christiansen might use his resolution and Carcieri as a springboard toward trying to have the city sue the tribe.

It’s a contentious issue, after all, since some tribes, including the Muscogee Nation, were recognized under the Oklahoma Indian Act of 1936. Legal officials aren’t sure whether that act would protect a tribe like Muscogee from ramifications of Carcieri if state or local officials decided to test the legal waters.

While A.D. Ellis, principal chief of the tribe, hasn’t mentioned Carcieri in connection to the Christiansen resolution, he has said that he understands the city’s interest in preserving tax revenue.

Still, Ellis said his responsibility is to improve the tribe’s revenue source and land ownership.