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Which way on land into trust?

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By hook and by crook, the federal government took away, gave away, sold and kept a vast amount of American Indian lands. The private property of tribes was ransacked by and for U.S. citizens for centuries.

Tribes were dispossessed of huge tracts of lands by legislative fiat (Allotment Acts) and of resources by bureaucratic policies (Bureau of Indian Affairs), a process that continued throughout the 20th century and now perhaps into the 21st century.

Beyond racism, beyond ethnic prejudice, the primary interaction of injustice between American Indian tribes and the U.S. government has been over the question of land ownership and the dispossession of lands and natural resources from tribal authority. The losses to Indians have been immense and have had severe repercussions. If the country would but simply extend to tribes the same legal standing as it does to individuals, families or corporations ? the history must be seen as one of a rapaciousness and thievery not often tolerated in America against any other group of landowners.

In the present condition of relative recovery from economic loss, a number of American Indian tribes have committed to their membership that they would buy back as much of their original reservation and allotment lands as they possibly could. The hope of the tribes is to put these lands back into trust status, to gain the protections offered by the federal system and to re-configure their original landholdings as much as possible.

In one of his final acts in office, former President Clinton's administration issued a ruling that eased the process by which tribes could regain as trust land parcels of territory previously lost to their reservations. That rule has been rescinded. Rather than build from the rule, the Bush administration claimed it was flawed, and threw it out altogether. The Interior Department says it will write a new rule, but considering who the opponents of Indian land-into-trust potentials are, it will not likely be written to return a full measure of justice, or be of full benefit, to the tribes.

Clinton's belated but welcome rule streamlined the process of judging land into trust requests to the BIA. It set stricter deadlines for government response. Opposition to the rule, which of course was widely hailed in Indian country, came precisely from the most anti-Indian forces imaginable ? municipalities and state attorneys general, governors and regional and national hate groups ? who accuse tribal land jurisdiction of eroding their existing tax bases.

America spent so long, more than 200 years, taking Indian land that it just does not want to get used to the idea of returning any of it to American Indian governments. Complaints that casinos or other tribal businesses might be run from new trust lands and intimations of lowered 'property values' if reservation communities spring in their midst have been also expressed by the more hostile county and state politicians that overlap Indian country. But this is a powerful historical trend that requires reversal.

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Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb spoke of seeking balance in reaching the decision to shelf the land-into-trust rule. However, many have thought that in allowing tribes to more quickly reacquire reservation land, the country was seeking to redress an imbalance that caused so much previous loss.

Once again, McCaleb cited the concerns of 'those governments, communities and individuals affected by land-into-trust requests,' rather than touting the potential opportunities for recovery by the Indian communities affected.

It is clear that as American Indian constituencies in the country re-establish their economic bases, border towns also benefit. What is new is that both sides are now sharing in the economic gains. For far too long, towns bordering Indian communities have taken all the profits, from sales of groceries, cars, furniture, construction supplies, appliances, even gasoline and cigarettes, to Indians. You name it and virtually every Indian dollar left the Indian community faster than it arrived.

It is much more preferable, of course, when Indian and non-Indian peoples and their governments work in mutually progressive ways, when one constituency prospers alongside the other, but ancient patterns and anticipations still run deep in American society.

Thus, some Indian sovereignties are welcomed by regions experiencing dire economic conditions, while in other places, they are attacked by groups with objectives destructive even to American Indian existence.

We support the right of Native nations to recover lands and to put them into the most preferred status, given that the lands should be restored to their proper ownership and standing in tribal legality. At the beginning of the 21st century, this is still the basis for improving opportunities and potentials for American Indians to rebuild their nations. The new rule on land-into-trust promised by the BIA should at its core be informed by and strongly assert that value.

The BIA should be the primary agency that advocates for the return of lands to American Indian peoples. Particularly in these troubled times, it is needed to help hold the line against the attempted erosion ? gradual or abrupt ? of tribal sovereignty.