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Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter today testified in favor of the American Indian Empowerment Act of 2011, a bill in Congress designed to empower Indian nations and tribes to accept restricted fee tribal lands.
H.R. 3532 was introduced Nov. 30, 2011 by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska and Rep. Dan Boren, D-Oklahoma. President Porter testified about it today in Washington, DC before the Committee on Natural Resources and the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.
“The bill would remove the obstacles to economic development that are inherent in the federal trusteeship,” Porter told the committee. “It would authorize other Indian tribes to follow the path taken by the Seneca Nation and restore to other Indian tribes the basic attributes of territorial sovereignty over their own land.”
This bill would allow Indian tribes to voluntarily move tribal trust lands into federally protected restricted fee status; eliminate the burdensome federal review process before an Indian tribe can lease or grant easements or rights of way in such restricted fee lands; and clarify that tribal law preempts federal law with respect to use of tribal restricted fee lands.
The bill would significantly enhance tribal self-determination and self-governance by removing the unnecessary federal review processes and restrictions that often stifle economic development opportunities in Indian country.
Restricted fee is land ownership status in which the owner holds title to and control of the property and the owner may make decisions about land use, but there are specific government-imposed restrictions on taxation of the land and the owner’s ability to sell the land to third parties.
The title for trust land is held by the federal government for the benefit of an individual Indian or a tribe. Day-to-day use of such land is subject to a myriad of administrative restrictions on usage.
“Territorial sovereignty – the right to determine what happens with our own land – is an essential element of tribal sovereignty,” President Porter said. “It diminishes tribal powers and inhibits tribal empowerment when federal law allows other governments run by other people to tell a tribal government what the tribal government can and cannot do with the tribal government’s own land.
“This is true whether the ‘trustee’ is great and careful, or awful and sloppy. Either way, when a trustee is holding title to your land, and must approve everything you seek to do with your property, you as the beneficiary are removed from responsibility, but also deprived of the ability to react swiftly.”
The bill would require the Secretary of the Interior to transfer to an Indian tribe in restricted fee status the title to land the United States currently holds in trust status within 180 days of formal notice. Restricted fee land, once conveyed, would continue to remain subject to restrictions imposed by the United States against alienation and state taxation.
Such restricted fee lands are and remain “Indian country” for purposes of other existing laws covering the 565 federally recognized Indian nations and tribes.
The bill would confirm an Indian tribe’s right to lease or grant easements or rights of way across its restricted fee lands for any duration without review or approval by the Secretary of the Interior, notwithstanding the provisions of other applicable laws.