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A bipartisan bill to place sacred Indian land in Southern California into federal trust is heading to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The Pala Band of Mission Indians Land Transfer Act of 2023 will authorize Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) to place 721.2 acres of land acquired by the Pala Band into federal trust for the benefit of its members. The lands are adjacent to the Pala Band of Mission Indians’ existing reservation. 

[This story was initially published by our Tribal Business News affiliate.]

The legislation was cosponsored by in the Senate by California Sens. Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein. GOP Rep. Darrell Issa sponsored the legislation in the House. 

The bill moves to Biden’s desk for signature into law after it passed the Senate yesterday by unanimous consent with no amendments. The legislation had previously passed the House in February.  

The Senate also advanced three other bills 

“This week’s action in the Senate brings us closer to fulfilling the federal government’s trust and treaty responsibilities to allow Tribal governments to once again manage their sacred lands,” Senator Padilla said in a statement. “This bill will allow the Pala Tribe to steward their ancestral homelands, known to the Tribe as ‘Chokla,’ and preserve their traditions for future generations. I’m proud to see the bill move out of the Senate and encourage President Biden to swiftly sign it into law.”

The lands in the bill include a portion of Gregory Mountain known to the Tribe as “Chokla” and Medicine Rock. The sacred sites were historically occupied by Native peoples and contain rock art paintings and ancient artifacts. 

After fighting to do so for more than 20 years, the Pala Band was able to purchase the 700-plus acres near Gregory Mountain in 2016 from a developer who intended to turn the Tribe’s culturally significant and sacred lands into a landfill. The passage of the bill would move the Tribe a step closer to preserving the sacred sites by having the lands placed into trust.

“The Pala Band of Mission Indians is grateful to Senator Padilla for introducing an historic piece of legislation that safeguards Gregory Canyon,” Chairman Robert Smith of the Pala Band of Mission Indians said in a statement. “With the passage of the legislation, our ancestral grounds, which is central to our spiritual and cultural traditions, will be forever protected as part of the Pala Reservation” 

Issa praised the bipartisan effort to move the legislation through Congress. 

 “We worked diligently to bring together supporters from across the aisle and from both houses of Congress, and this show of support is a tribute to the integrity of the Pala project,” he said. “The Pala Band of Mission Indians is an important and meaningful part of our Southern California community, and I know Pala will carry out its rightful stewardship in a way that will protect and preserve sacred lands.”

In addition to the Pala Band legislation, the Senate also moved three other bills related to Indian Country yesterday:  S. 70, the Tribal Trust Land Homeownership Act of 2023; S. 460, the Urban Indian Health Confer Act; and S. 1308, a bill to amend the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act to extend the deadline for the Secretary of the Interior to promulgate regulations implementing title IV of that Act, and for other purposes.  Those bills now head to the House for consideration. 


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