Advisers to President-elect Donald Trump are pushing the idea of transferring control of 56 million acres of American Indian lands from the federal government to the tribes that live there, in an effort to spur natural resource development.
Under current law, tribes have limited rights to use their own lands because it is actually owned by the federal government. Tribal officials govern Indian lands as sovereign nations, but federal officials ultimately decide the range of activities allowed on such lands.
Tribes can drill or mine on their lands, but federal agencies apply stricter regulations than on private property, Trump advisers told Reuters.
“We should take tribal land away from public treatment,” Oklahoma Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin, a Cherokee tribe member who co-chairs Trump’s Native American Affairs Coalition, told Reuters.
“As long as we can do it without unintended consequences, I think we will have broad support around Indian country,” Mullin said.
“It has to be done with an eye toward protecting sovereignty,” echoed Ross Swimmer, the co-chair on Trump’s Indian coalition. Swimmer used to be chief of Cherokee nation and worked in the Reagan administration.
Given the U.S. government’s record in dealing with tribes, some have expressed skepticism of such a proposal.
“Our spiritual leaders are opposed to the privatization of our lands, which means the commoditization of the nature, water, air we hold sacred,” Tom Goldtooth, a Native American who heads the Indigenous Environmental Network.
“Privatization has been the goal since colonization – to strip Native Nations of their sovereignty,” he said.
Trump advisers did not provide any details to Reuters about how they plan to protect tribal sovereignty or allocate mineral rights on Indian lands. The government has long made sure non-Indians could not buy reservation lands, and that’s been suggested as part of the privatization plan.
While there are concerns about tribal identity and the environment, Indian country is mired in poverty, and many see drilling and mining activities as a way to bring good-paying jobs to tribal members.
Many reservations suffer from high unemployment rates and crippling alcoholism, and some argue privatization of lands could help.
A 2015 Government Accountability Office report found mismanagement at the Bureau of Indian Affairs hindered energy development on tribal lands at a time when production boomed on private and state lands. Tribal lands are estimated to hold $1.5 trillion worth of natural resources.
Alaska is home to thousands of Native Americans whose land rights have been curtailed by federal regulations. Those living in the northern reaches of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) have been unsuccessfully urging Congress to allow them to drill for oil in a tiny portion of the refuge.
“We have thousands and thousands of acres of land that our people in the state of Alaska, especially in ANWR, have title to and [they] cannot even use that resource to enrich themselves,” Alaska State Rep. Benjamin Nageak, a Democrat and the only U.S. lawmaker from ANWR, said in a 2015 video.
“That is wrong,” said Nageak, who represents the town of Barrow on Alaska’s North Slope. “When you give the people the ability to enrich themselves you don’t lock up their lands so they don’t do anything else but just sit on it and nothing comes out of it except the renewable resources that we depend on. That to me is wrong.”
The Crow and Navajo nations, for example, mine for coal, but that industry has been threatened by cheap natural gas and federal power plant regulations.
More recently, environmentalists have been campaigning against export terminals Crow officials want to make money off selling coal overseas. Navajo Nation has struggled to keep its massive coal plant, and accompanying mine, open in the face of utilities phasing out coal.
To make matters worse, the Interior Department issued a moratorium on new mines in the coal basin the Crow use. Lawmakers were quick to point to it as another instance of the federal government putting politics over tribal interests.
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