A 1934 law that allows the federal government to set aside land for Tribes came under scrutiny this week when lawmakers couldn’t agree on how the law should be interpreted.
The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) states that only members of Tribes “recognized and now under federal jurisdiction” can acquire trust land, however, in 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court kept to a literal interpretation of the word now. In response, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) who chairs the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, noted in a recent memo that the Secretary of the Interior “may no longer use the IRA to acquire trust land for any post-1934 tribe without specific authorization from Congress,” setting off more confusion and disappointment as to the original intent of the law.
Some committee members, like Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), criticized LaMalfa’s take on the long-standing law, saying it’s an attack on Tribal sovereignty and self-determination and their ability to acquire land. Moreover, no federal court since 1934 has reversed any land-into-trust acquisitions made by the Department of the Interior, although some localities have challenged the law. Only one of the four witnesses at the committee hearing was a Tribal representative, the other three represented federal or local governments.
James Cason, associate deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, testified at a hearing on the matter that, “Overall, land-into-trust acquisitions are uncontested transfers that often have local support,” but he also noted that, “off-reservation lands that are acquired through the fee-to-trust process have the potential to raise jurisdictional uncertainties in local communities, as well as complicating [sic] land-use planning and the provision of services.”