An adviser to President-elect Donald Trump says the media “distorted” his plan to give American Indian tribes control over their lands by labeling the effort as “privatization” rather than self-determination.
“I feel the need to clarify my comments, and alleviate any concern that Indian Country should fear the federal government privatizing their land,” Oklahoma Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin, a Cherokee tribe member who co-chairs Trump’s Native American Affairs Coalition, said in a statement.
Mullin was pushing a plan to “privatize” Indian lands to unlock vast oil and natural gas reserves, Reuters reported Monday. The “p” word had some tribal leaders worried they would lose their cultural heritage in what would be a stunning reversal of federal Indian policy.
But Mullin said “we are not ‘privatizing’ Indian land” but instead “removing public-land restrictions on Indian trust land, such as the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA),” which can tie up any sort of development on Indian lands for years.
Mullin and Ross Swimmer, the ex-chief of the Cherokee nation who worked in the Reagan administration, want to get the Department of the Interior out of decisions about what tribes can do on their own lands.
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.
“In working with the incoming administration, I am confident that we can improve the land trusts and allow the tribes to be independent in determining their own use of resources and land,” Mullin said. “It is time to end the overreaching paternalism that has held American Indians back from being the drivers of their own destiny.”
Many reservations suffer from high unemployment rates and alcoholism, and Mullin believes tribes can break this poverty cycle with stronger property rights.
“We must also remove the barriers from the decision-making process and stop forcing tribes to ask permission from federal entities like the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM),” Mullin said.
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.
But the U.S. government’s past dealings with tribes — breaking treaty obligations and moving tribes off their lands — has some skeptical this proposal would actually help American Indians.
Reuters pointed to some notable failures in U.S.-American Indian relations: “The Dawes Act of 1887 offered Indians private lots in exchange for becoming U.S. citizens – resulting in more than 90 million acres passing out of Indian hands between the 1880s and 1930s.”
“Congress later adopted the so-called ‘termination’ policy in 1953, designed to assimilate Native Americans into U.S. society,” according to Reuters. “Over the next decade, some 2.5 million acres of land were removed from tribal control, and 12,000 Native Americans lost their tribal affiliation.”
“Privatization of Indian lands during the 1880s is widely viewed as one of the greatest mistakes in federal Indian policy,” Kevin Washburn, the former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs and a member of Oklahoma’s Chickasaw Nation, told Reuters.
Tribes also worry they could lose the $20 billion in support the federal government dishes out to tribes every year, but Trump’s team says they want to avoid past mistakes.
“Self-determination in their own affairs is the only way for tribes to pull themselves from poverty and grow as a people,” Mullin said. “These acts of sovereignty are important because tribes know best what their people need and Natives have always been good stewards of our natural resources and land.”
“It is my goal, and I will continue to urge President-elect Trump to provide tribes with the resources they need in order to best decide how their land should be developed,” he said.
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