Published January 1, 2019
From healthcare to the protection of sacred lands, tribal leaders are worried about the Trump administration’s handling of American Indian affairs as 2019 begins. Among all of Indian Country’s concerns, the threat to tribal sovereignty is front and center among tribal leaders.
This concern became a common theme that emerged at the National Congress of American Indian (NCAI) 75th Annual Convention & Marketplace in Denver in late October among tribal leaders. In particular, at issue was the September 2018 letter of determination sent by the Assistant Secretary of the Interior – Indian Affairs Tara Katuk Mac Lean Sweeney to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe saying it could not keep 321 acres of land taken into trust in 2015 during the Obama administration.
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell says the letter was the beginning of new termination era where tribal sovereignty is in real jeopardy. The termination era was a period when the federal government sought to dissolve tribal governments and reservation lands were disestablished. The termination era lasted for two decades from approximately the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s.
“We have been on this land for 12,000 years and we are not going anywhere. This only underscores the urgency of passing the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act immediately. We implore Congress to act now,” says Cromwell.
Cromwell was referring to a Congressional bill (HR 5244), known as the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act that would protect the tribe’s reservation, overruling any judge’s decision or determination by the Interior Department was introduced by U.S. Representative William R. Keating in March 2018.
Lance Gumbs, vice president of the northeast region of NCAI, was vocal at the Denver convention saying he is concerned about the precedent set with the Interior Department’s decision to take the Mashpee tribe’s reservation out of trust.
“If they can do it to one tribe, they can do it to any tribe,” says Gumbs.
The good news is, there appears to be bi-partisan support for HR 5244. The bill lost momentum, as did other legislation, during the general election when Congress adjourns so lawmakers can go home to campaign. Given other items on the congressional agenda, this bill did not advance before Congress adjourned for the year. Hopefully, this bi-partisan supports continues when the 116th Congress takes over.
Further good news is the general election produced the first American Indian congresswomen in the history of the United States. Newly elected was two Democrats: Deb Haaland was elected from New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District and Sharice Davids was elected from Kansas 3rd Congressional District.
In a time of political uncertainty, the two Native women provide glimmers of hope. While representing the interests of the constituents in their respective districts, having the two women warriors in Congress fighting for Indian Country is encouraging as we look forward to 2019.