By Jim Allen, Editor, NuVote Reach and Examiner.com
President Barack Obama and Elouise Cobell aka Yellow Bird Woman, Oval Office Dec. 2010
Photo Credit: Great Falls Tribune
President Barack Obama, this week (December 5), will host his fourth White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Department of the Interior (Interior), in the wake of significant rulemaking on leasing Tribal lands and final approval of a multi-billion dollar class action settlement related to US mismanagement of Indian lands, both last week. The White House/Interior conference will provide leaders from the 566 federally recognized Native American tribes and Alaska Native Corporations the opportunity to “interact directly with the President and representatives from the highest levels of his Administration,” according to a White House press release.
As part of “President Obama’s commitment to empower Tribal nations and strengthen their economies,” last week, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced in an Interior press release, the “final regulations that will streamline the leasing approval process on Indian land, spurring increased homeownership, and expediting business and commercial development, including renewable energy projects.”
The reform initiative seeks to overhaul outdated regulations governing the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) process for approving the surface leases on 56 million acres which the US federal government holds in trust for the Indian tribes and individuals.
It is intended to “expand opportunities for individual landowners and tribal governments to generate investment and create jobs in their communities by bringing greater transparency and workability to the BIA leasing process,” Secretary Salazar said.
“At its core, this reform is about good government and supporting self-determination for Indian Nations,” said Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk to Native American Times.
The federal Indian trust responsibility is a legal obligation under which the United States “has charged itself with moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust” toward Indian tribes, as expressed in Seminole Nation v. United States, 1942.
This obligation was first expressed by US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and has been seen in conventional terms as guiding the evolution of federal Indian law to the present: “That tribes possess a nationhood status and retain inherent powers of self-government,” wrote Marshall.
The new rulemaking buttresses the recently-passed Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership Act (HEARTH Act), which allows federally recognized tribes to assume greater control of leasing on tribal lands.
Previous BIA regulations, established in 1961, lacked a defined process or deadlines for review, which resulted in simple mortgage applications being in limbo for several years awaiting approval from the US government.
The new process provides a 30 day-limit for the BIA to issue decisions on residential leases, subleases and/or mortgages. For commercial or industrial development, the BIA would have 60 days to review leases and subleases, or those agreements will automatically go into effect.
The new leasing rulemaking “…caps the most comprehensive reforms of Indian land leasing regulations in more than 50 years and will have a lasting impact on individuals and families who want to own a home or build a business on Indian land,” said Salazar.
One notes the designation of “surface leases” on 56 million acres of Native American land in trust with the US government. With US natural gas deposits sufficient for 100-plus years of shale-rock-related mining, using relatively recently improved hydro-fracking technology, and with the various debates over oil pipeline development, the energy-related aspects of this rulemaking – although downplayed in the Interior press release – over time, may be interesting to track.
This, from the House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs webpage:
- Some experts estimate that up to 10 percent of the nation’s untapped energy resources (including oil, gas, coal, wind, and solar) lie under or on tribal lands.
- According to the Department of the Interior, the production of energy and mineral resources in 2007 generated $524 million in royalty revenue paid to Indian individuals and Tribes. These resources are critical not only for national energy security, but for the generation of jobs, royalties, and other benefits for members of the tribes that own the energy.
- All 10.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge can be produced utilizing just 2,000 acres of surface land throughout the whole 1.5 million-acre area.
“The revised regulations will bring greater transparency, efficiency and workability to the BIA approval process, and will provide tribal communities and individuals certainty and flexibility when it comes to decisions on the use of their land,” added Echo Hawk.
With regard to the “moral obligation” attendant to Indian land-trust management by the US government, Secretary Salazar also announced last week the final settlement approval of the Cobell v Salazar class action suit.
In 1996, Elouise Cobell (aka Yellow Bird Woman), who is Blackfeet from Browning, Montana, filed a lawsuit alleging Interior had woefully mismanaged Native American assets, since the 1800.
Her case finally settled in late 2009 for $3.4 billion – with final approvals from all parties issued just last week, one year and one month after Yellow Bird Woman died from cancer, at age 65. The proceeds will be divided among hundreds of thousands of Native Americans owed royalty payments on lands developed by the US government.
“She always spread the word, stood up for people who can’t stand up for themselves or when there was a need that was unmet,” said her son Turk Cobell about his mother to the Great Falls Tribune.
The settlement includes a $1.5 billion fund to be distributed to class members for accounting and potential Indian trust fund and asset mismanagement claims and a $1.9 billion fund for a land consolidation program that allows for the voluntary sale of individual land interests that have “fractionated” among many owners, over successive generations “making it difficult for individuals to use the land for agriculture, business development, or housing from which tribes can benefit,” according to the Interior.
“This marks the historic conclusion of a contentious and long running period of litigation,” said Hilary Tompkins, Solicitor for the Department of the Interior.
“Through the hard work and good will of plaintiffs, Interior and Treasury officials and Department of Justice counsel, we are turning a new page and look forward to collaboratively working with Indian country to manage these important funds and assets,” Tompkins added.
Each tribe has been invited to send one representative to this week’s White House/Interior conference. The President is expected to deliver remarks during the closing session and Tribal leaders will also participate in breakout sessions, building upon “the president’s commitment to strengthen the government to government relationship with Indian Country,” according to the White House.
But alas, the breakout sessions will be closed to the press. Wouldn’t one love to be a fly on the wall in that room next to a portrait of Yellow Bird Woman with a caption that reads: “…conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all…”?