Raúl M. Grijalva
The Trump administration is waging an unprecedented attack on Indian Country. Unless Congress steps up soon, Native Americans across the country could soon lose the ability to determine their own economic future.
I don’t use these terms lightly, and it’s important to understand the real sense of crisis that now grips tribal communities. In September 2018, the Department of the Interior (DOI) took land held in trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag, a Massachusetts tribe that had been recognized for decades without controversy, out of trust status. That move has already had severe consequences, and other tribes fear they could suffer the same fate.
Federal recognition of tribes flows from the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which gives the federal government authority to take land into trust for tribal economic development. Department of the Interior based its Mashpee decision on the 2009 Supreme Court Carcieri v. Salazar decision, which held that federal agencies cannot take land into trust for tribes federally recognized after 1934 – a punitive and narrow ruling whose consequences continue to multiply. The Carcieri decision has created a two-tier system among tribes – the landed and the landless – that doesn’t serve the public interest and has already done grave damage to Mashpee families.
The Obama administration legally defended its decision to place land into trust for the Mashpee, even in the face of challenges from the state of Rhode Island – who many observers believed were more interested in potential gaming competition than anything else. In September 2018, Trump officials withdrew the federal government’s longstanding legal backing for the Mashpee Wampanoag, abruptly wiping out mandatory federal economic support and decimating the tribe’s property base.
The effect of this decision cannot be overstated. For the first time this century, a tribe was stripped of its sovereign rights to land. The Trump administration passed an economic death sentence on an entire community at no benefit to the American people. A tribe has not been treated like this since the Indian termination policies of the 1960s or, going further back, the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
What has this meant in practical terms? As Jessie Little Doe Baird, vice chair of the Mashpee Wampanoag, testified before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States on April 3, the tribe has been forced to borrow thousands of dollars every day to keep basic government functions running, and the tribal government is close to shutting down. The tribe has already laid off 41 percent of its workforce, the overwhelming majority of whom are Tribal citizens, and has been forced to shut down or severely scale back many vital government projects. These include life-and-death programs like addiction treatment services, even though Wampanoag are 400 times more likely than non-Wampanoag people in the region to die of an overdose.
Consider that figure for a moment. Then consider that this was entirely avoidable, that it should never happen again, and that we can prevent this being repeated – but only if Congress acts now.
Indeed, this injustice has a remedy: the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act. The bill doesn’t ask Congress to do anything it hasn’t done before. It simply reaffirms the Mashpee Wampanoag’s right to the land it held, untroubled, for many years before the Trump administration came along. There really is no clever alternative. Failing to pass this bill means ignoring the problem, wishing the Mashpee luck and hoping this all goes away by itself. That’s not a tenable solution.
American history carries a clear lesson: Tribes need federal support for tribal sovereignty rights to land. When those rights are ignored or attacked, the result is nearly immediate destruction of the tribe’s ability to support itself.
Anyone tempted to blame the Mashpee Wampanoag – or any other tribe – for their current predicament has to contend with centuries of anti-Indian federal policies that stripped tribes of their land and pushed them into cycles of poverty. Lectures about bootstrapping ring especially hollow in communities whose land was stolen and whose efforts to get it back have been met with the full force of the federal government. The Obama administration took a good step in supporting the Mashpee; the Trump administration has gone back to the bad old days, and worse.
Towns own land. Counties own land. States own land. The federal government owns land. Land ownership and land use are the basis for our modern economy. When tribes have no control of land, they have no control of their economic destiny. The Trump administration took away the Mashpee Wampanoag’s control of the land they relied on for their future, and unless Congress passes a remedy, Trump officials set a precedent that can lead to them passing a similar sentence on other tribes.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe welcomed pilgrims into this country. Congress blunting the Trump administration’s attack on the tribe won’t come close to repaying the courtesy, but it would at least put us on the right side of history.
Representative Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) is the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Note: originally published at thehill.com; re-published with permission.