Congressman, BIA Tussle Over Authority to Put Land Into Trust

The chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, Don Young, has put the process by which the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizes tribes under the microscope. This criticism prompted a spirited defense of the process recently by Kevin Washburn, who heads the BIA.

Recently the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indians Affairs, Don Young, and Kevin K. Washburn, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had a pointed exchange over the BIA’s authority to put land into trust.

The reason for the encounter was over the subcommittee’s hearing on “The Obama Administration’s Part 83 (Federal Recognition Regulations) Revisions and How They May Allow the Interior Department to Create Tribes, not Recognize Them.” The May 14 hearing focused on “Inadequate Standards for Trust Land Acquisition in the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA).”

At the beginning of the hearing Young declared, “This hearing is a hearing to hear for a solution to the Carcieri question about trust lands,” referring to the 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in which the court held that tribes recognized after 1934 cannot put land into trust.

During Washburn’s testimony Young stated, “You’ve made clear your concerns about tribal governments and you’ve not hidden your prejudices and I respect that and although I disagree with you I’m glad you’re not running from your convictions. … I worry that your vision returns us to what some believe were the darkest days of Indian policy.” He noted that the committee’s memos on the hearings were in clear opposition to the administration’s goals.

Young asked Washburn for a list of land into trust applications that had been accepted and those that had been rejected. Washburn said he couldn’t list the disapprovals because there are so few of them. When a tribe’s application is likely to be disapproved it is advised of that fact and it usually withdraws the application.

This prompted Young to declare, “Now wait a minute! Don’t tell me you can’t if there is one! You have your lawyer behind you, you’re a lawyer… As far as you not giving me the information, don’t ever cross me that way, Kevin! If I ask, you will give me that information!”

During the exchange Washburn noted that previously cast into doubt the legitimacy of some tribes that his bureau has recognized and said it seemed to him to be part of a broader attack that calls into question the standards used to recognize tribes. “It’s on your conscience and on mine if this attack on Indian country is allowed to succeed,” said Washburn. “I don’t intend to stand idly by and let it happen on my watch and I ask the same of you.”