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Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

After hearing some tribes completed fee to trust applications, then waited years to hear back, the U.S. Department of Interior is deciding to take action.

The agency announced major steps this week to allow for more straightforward guidelines for tribal nations applying to put land into trust.

“No tribe should have an application that lingers for years and years and years,” a speaker from the office of the secretary said.

On Tuesday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, issued a new secretarial order which says fee to trust applications will now be reviewed and authorized by regional directors of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, instead of the previous process that required applications to be reviewed through Interior’s headquarters.

According to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the interior secretary is authorized to acquire land into trust for federally recognized tribes.

The changes are effective immediately, though the order will not apply to gaming applications, the Interior department said.

The department’s solicitor also announced Tuesday a series of newly issued or withdrawn opinions. A new opinion, M-37069, appears to allow Haaland the authority to place land into trust in Alaska.

“The withdrawal eliminates an unnecessary barrier to taking land into trust in Alaska imposed by the previous administration,” a spokesperson told Indian Country Today. “This action allows the Department to consult with Tribal Nations in Alaska on a path for the Secretary to approve trust acquisitions.”

In 2016, former President Barack Obama allowed the Interior to accept land into trust for federally recognized tribes in Alaska.

The department’s solicitor also withdrew three previous opinions put into place by the Trump administration that hindered the process of completing a fee to trust application.

The three withdrawn opinions, M-37054, M-37055, and M-37064, created an “unduly burdensome process” for tribes to place land into trust under the Indian Reorganization Act and also stated the Interior secretary did not have authority to take land into trust for tribes in Alaska. The solicitor also reinstated a previous opinion, M-37029, that outlines a reasonable process for tribal fee-to-trust applications. This process has been used in numerous land acquisitions in the past.

“At Interior, we have an obligation to work with tribes to protect their lands and ensure that each tribe has a homeland where its citizens can live together and lead safe and fulfilling lives,” Haaland said in a statement.

The nature of Tuesday’s actions “are a big deal for Indian Country,” an Interior spokesperson said.

In the Obama administration, the Interior placed more than 560,000 acres of land into trust — that’s in comparison to the Trump administration, which placed 75,000 acres of land into trust.

“The actions are unwinding the last administration,” the spokesperson said.

The U.S. Department of Interior in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)

One of the successes under the Trump administration included the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians in California.

In 2010, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians purchased 1,390 acres of land to aid the tribe’s housing needs. They began the application process in June 2013 and the land was officially placed into trust in January 2017.

John Tahsuda III, Kiowa, previously served as principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian Affairs under the Trump administration. He told Indian Country Today Wednesday that during his tenure, adjustments were already made to make the process easier to put land into trust.

“If Secretary Haaland has a better way to go about it, that would be great, but it looks to me like what she's doing is kind of going back to where the system was before we made some changes. And so I'll be interested to see how that works out for them," Tahsuda said.

(Newscast: 'Trees are mighty and strong')

Other tribal leaders weighed in too.

“Tribal nations care for the social needs of their people, whether that's housing, health care or education,” said Lance Gumbs, an ambassador for the Shinnecock Indian Nation on Long Island, which was formally recognized by the federal government in 2010 after a 32-year campaign.

There are 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. and 326 reservations, villages, rancherias and other designated homelands, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Some reservations have multiple tribes but not every tribe has land of its own. Many reservations are just remnants of a tribe’s original land base.

Gumbs, who is also a board member of the National Congress of American Indians, said the now-cancelled policy for approving land transfers had injected more delay and uncertainty into the process and added to costs for tribes.

“Land is everything … It makes it very difficult for tribes to take care of their people without this very important component,” he added.

The benefits of this new process, some say

Putting land into trust can benefit tribal nations in many ways. Tribes are able to use the land in trust for housing opportunities, energy development, and even negotiate the use and sale of natural resources on their homelands. They are also able to better protect their communities through greater jurisdictional boundaries.

The Interior Department estimates that there are currently over 1,000 pending applications presented by tribes, with the overwhelming majority of those applications consisting of lands requested within existing reservations.

A tribal nation who recently gained federal recognition says it hopes to benefit from the new process.

In 2019, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Montana gained federal recognition. It also had the option of putting 200 acres of land (which is approximately 0.31 square miles) into trust. The tribe has not yet taken that action.

In usual circumstances, most newly federally recognized tribes do not automatically get land.

Little Shell is now hoping to expand their land base, Chairman Gerald Gray said. The tribe recently purchased approximately 700 acres of agricultural land near Great Falls. It plans to use the land to start a tribal food sovereignty program to raise cattle and distribute meat to those in need, including elders.

Little Shell is currently looking at putting the purchased acres into trust land.

“I think this is really good that the Interior is looking at making this process a lot easier,” Gray said.

Tuesday’s actions were spurred by many tribes advocating a need to exercise self-determination. “This administration is aiming to make sure that its Indian Affairs agenda is really driven by the people of Indian Country,” the Interior spokesperson said.

(Montana Senator Jon Tester, left, and Little Shell Chairman Gerald Gray)

Another benefit to tribes is that the new actions minimize costs.

The faster that tribes can get their fee-to-trust application reviewed, the less they’ll have to pay in completing the process — and the less taxes they will have to pay to operate on lands they don’t own. Such is the case with tribes in Montana.

A Senate bill in the state allows counties to retrieve property taxes if a fee to trust application is denied or if the entire process exceeds five years.

Montana state rep. Tyson Running Wolf, Blackfeet, says he opposed the bill because it would mean tribes would have to pay back years of taxes if an application is long-winded, which he knows happens often from his previous experience as former council member for the Blackfeet Tribe from 2014 to 2018.

“It’s sometimes a hindrance to do the application,” he said.

He said the biggest hindrance to completing the application is the fees of getting an environmental assessment paid for. These assessments are only good for 180 days, so if the process takes longer than that, they have to do it again.

“It’s no easy task to pay for that,” Running Wolf said. “Especially when the tribe has to find the funding.”

During his 4-year tenure on tribal council, he says the tribe was never successful in its fee to trust applications. Currently the Blackfeet have submitted 160 applications to place an estimated 40,000 acres into trust, he said.

Other costs to a fee to trust application are legal fees to prepare memos and other documents.

An Interior spokesperson estimated that a tribal nation could spend tens of thousands of dollars in this process. “A dozen acres can get into the six figures,” the spokesperson said.

The Interior department says it would like to see applications resolved more quickly, with clarity and consistency.

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