With just three months to spare, the Obama Administration met—and exceeded—its goal to place half a million acres of land into trust for tribal nations.
Since 2009, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has processed 2,265 individual trust applications and restored more than 542,000 acres of land into trust. Geographically speaking, that’s roughly 12 times the size of Washington, D.C., though most of the trust land comes in small, rural parcels.
“Probably the most important thing the Obama Administration did for Native Americans was restore land to tribes,” Kevin Washburn, former assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, told ICTMN. “From the start, Obama prioritized Indian lands, and during his presidency, more land was taken into trust than during any other administration.”
The administration’s goal stems from a promise Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made during the fifth White House Tribal Nations Conference, in November 2013. Addressing tribal leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., Jewell announced her commitment to place 500,000 acres into trust by the time President Barack Obama leaves office.
The scale tipped in tribes’ favor in October when Obama signed into law the Nevada Native Nations Lands Act, which conveyed more than 71,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands into trust status for six Nevada tribes. The act also brought the total acreage of land restored into trust during the last eight years to 542,062.
On the receiving end of the act was the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, a community of three Great Basin tribes that gained 13,400 acres of BLM land near Reno. Reno-Sparks, comprised of the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe tribes, has waited a century to expand its land base, Chairman Arlan Melendez said.
“Since 1916, we have lived on our original reservation of 20 acres,” he said. “We can’t fit one more house there.”
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony gained federal recognition in 1934 under the Indian Reorganization Act—the same act that halted the government’s era of land-grabbing. Fifty years later, the tiny community gained a 1,900-acre, noncontiguous parcel, increasing its total land base by tenfold.
“Most tribes in Nevada have very small reservations,” Melendez said. “We’ve been trying to grow for as a long as I can remember.” The October transfer is, by far, the biggest acquisition for the colony, multiplying its existing land base by seven, for a total of 15,300 acres.
The Nevada Native Nations Lands Act, which also places land into trust for the Te-Moak, Shoshone Paiute of Duck Valley, Pyramid Lake Paiute, Summit Lake Paiute and the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone, grants tribes access to economic development and cultural and natural resources, Melendez said. It also gives Native nations stewardship over lands—often their own ancestral homelands—and sometimes caught in the crosshairs of competing special interests, like hunting, off-highway vehicles and trash dumping.
The 71,000-acre transfer, which made national news only because it propelled the Obama Administration past its 500,000-acre goal, was among hundreds of applications processed during the last eight years. Tribes from across the United States transferred into federal trust parcels ranging from a few acres to a sprawling 90,000 acres for the Pueblo of Isleta in New Mexico.
The Isleta Pueblo in January increased its land base by more than 50 percent when the BIA approved its largest trust acquisition to date. For the pueblo, the transfer ended 18 years of waiting, Governor E. Paul Torres said.
“We purchased that property, the Comanche Ranch, almost 20 years ago and the idea was to put it in trust right away,” he said. “But then we had every issue you could think of. It depended on who the President was, the way things were run.”
At the root of the logjam was a federal system that failed to prioritize Indian trust land, said John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians. The Interior Department for decades failed to assign deadlines to tribes’ requests to place land into trust, and applications expired before they were processed.
“There was no timeframes, no deadlines, no urgency,” Dossett said. “Tribes have been frustrated with the slow process, with the bureaucracy at the Interior.”
For many tribes, land acquisition is simply a matter of restoring control of original homelands, Dossett said. Placing land into trust helps reverse the affects of the Dawes Act of 1887, the Indian allotment era and the fractionation of Indian lands.
The process begins to correct a long history of loss that began in the 1880s when the federal government grabbed two-thirds of Indian land, or 90 million acres. That ended in 1934 with the Indian Reorganization Act, which also allowed tribes to buy back land that hadn’t been homesteaded.
But few tribes had the resources to purchase land, Dossett said. Those that could often found their applications stalled in layers of bureaucracy.
“This has been an agonizingly slow process since the 1930s,” Dossett said. “For decades, tribes have been frustrated with the slow process, with the bureaucracy.”
That changed when Obama took office and promised to build on government-to-government relationships. When Jewell announced the administration’s goal of placing half a million acres into trust, the BIA had already processed 1,400 applications since 2009, transferring 230,000 acres of land into federal trust.
The goal established a reason for efficiency, Dossett said. The Interior quickly processed some of the uncontroversial applications that had stalled for years or even decades.
“Basically there was a lot of low-hanging fruit,” he said. “Applications were backlogged and the administration moved a lot of those through quickly. There was a lot in the pipeline that just needed to be approved.”
The Pueblo of Isleta took advantage of the Obama Administration’s “open door” and pushed the application through, Torres said. Although the Interior Department took into trust only part of the pueblo’s land, the transfer ended an 18-year standstill and increased the land base to nearly 200,000 acres.
Lands held in federal trust are protected in perpetuity. They cannot be sold or transferred to non-Indians.
“This land will be ours forever,” Torres said. “It will be held for generations in the future. We’re very fortunate, very lucky. We were just buying our own land back.”
Dossett cautions that the trust process may slow as Obama’s presidency comes to an end.
“The Obama Administration set this goal and met it, but what happens next?” he said. “What happens when the urgency ends? What will the next administration do?”