WASHINGTON — 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.
The Supreme Court decision, they said, has spawned confusion and lawsuits and a burdensome process at the Interior Department for determining whether some tribes were under federal jurisdiction in 1934.
The case is not expected to have much impact in Oklahoma, but Cole, the only enrolled member of an Indian tribe in Congress, has become an advocate for American Indian issues nationwide.
At the hearing, Cole asked Echo Hawk to rank the trust land issue in terms of the administration's priorities for tribes.
“This is the top priority here that we're talking about,” Echo Hawk replied.
Some of the resistance in Congress to reversing the Supreme Court decision stems from concerns about Indian gaming. Last year, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, argued that a provision Cole wrote to reverse the ruling would lead “to a major expansion of gambling.”
Cole has disputed that contention numerous times and said Thursday that 95 percent of the pending 2,000 requests for trust land are for nongaming purposes.