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Reversing trust land decision is Obama administration's top priority for Indian Country

Interior Department official joins U.S. Rep. Tom Cole in calling for a “fix” to a Supreme Court decision that has kept some tribes from acquiring land to be held by federal government. Cole, R-Moore, is an Oklahoman and a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
BY CHRIS CASTEEL Published: October 14, 2011

— The Obama administration's top priority for Indian Country is getting Congress to fix a Supreme Court decision that reversed decades of policy in regard to putting land into trust for some tribes, a key Interior Department official said Thursday.

Larry Echo Hawk, assistant Interior secretary for Indian Affairs, told Rep. Tom Cole that Congress must pass legislation “to make sure that all tribes are treated alike.”

Cole, R-Moore, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, has been trying for two years to push through legislation that would reinstate the Interior Department's authority to put land into trust for tribes that were not federally recognized before the Indian Reorganization Act was passed in 1934.

Tribal trust land has a special status since it is typically outside of state jurisdiction; Cole said it is critical to tribal sovereignty.

The 2009 decision by the high court, involving the state of Rhode Island and the Narragansett Tribe, created two classes of tribes — those that can have land in trust and those that can't because they weren't recognized in 1934, Cole said at a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

“The Narragansett Tribe has treaties with the colony of Rhode Island,” Cole said. “To claim they did not exist prior to 1934 is preposterous.”

The tribe was not federally recognized until 1983.

Cole, Echo Hawk and other experts testifying at the hearing said tribes need land for economic development and cultural purposes and as a base for government operations, including law enforcement.

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