Native leaders seek more control over assets

Ute Mountain Ute chairman presses for trust-fund reforms

By Mariam Baksh, The Durango Herald

Heart

Heart

WASHINGTON – Tribal leaders appealed to the federal government for greater control of their assets during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday.

In the 1800s, the federal government agreed to hold Indian lands for 25 years, promising to allot economic benefits of the land to Indians – a trust. The beneficiaries could not sell, lease or otherwise encumber their allotted lands without government approval. This practice is still in effect today, according to a recent Department of Interior report to Congress.

“Leasing lands should be tribally driven,” said Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart in a telephone interview. “We know what’s best for us.”

The trust is established in the Constitution and in extensive case law, but it is not codified in any congressional statute. Tribes support legislation by Sen. Michael Crapo, R-Idaho, and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to codify the trust and reform it to give more management control to tribal governments.

The legislation would maintain federal responsibility and oversight for the trust, but seeks to ensure accountability by having Native Americans provide input in management decisions.

Tribal leaders are also calling for the elimination of the Office of the Special Trustee. They say it is superfluous to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and it causes delays and hurdles for tribal management.

The National Congress of American Indians has issued a resolution expressing the importance of the legislation in streamlining rules to promote economic development.

“We go to the BIA, and they say you have to go to the OST, then they send us back to the BIA,” said Ernest Stensgar, vice chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Indians, describing the permitting process for logging projects. “OST is a problem. Our processes can come to a dead stop as we wait to find out who has jurisdiction.”

Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, acknowledged as many as 43 steps are required for permitting development but said merging the positions would be “like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

“Frankly, this fiduciary function is very important, having that expertise,” Washburn said. “We’re very cautious about claims that the OST position needs to be reformed.”

The committee also discussed the Supreme Court’s ruling on Carcieri v. Salazar. In 2009, the court ruled that only tribes recognized before 1934 should be included in the trust.

“It’s (Carcieri analysis) has been a horrible burden,” said Washburn, who explained that counties often fear a loss of tax revenue from tribes being accepted into the trust. “If there’s disagreement from the local or state governments, proposals to join the trust can languish for years.”

Washburn described another challenge concerning states’ jurisdiction.

“State taxation crowds out the ability of tribes to develop their lands,” he said.

“If we really want to get serious about issues like native youth suicides, then we have to allow development and tackling dual taxation.”

Heart said state control has affected the Ute Mountain Utes. The tribe has about 20,000 acres in New Mexico, but because New Mexico doesn’t recognize the Ute Mountain Utes, the state collects taxes from companies. Heart says that revenue belongs to the tribe.

These types of uncertainties create land insecurity and end up stifling economic interests for both native and non-native people, said Gregory Smith, an attorney working to defend tribal rights in the Southwest.

Heart said the Ute Mountain Utes have casinos and oil and gas developments, and they are looking to invest in solar energy, as well.

Bills Propose To Reverse National Labor Relations Board Jurisdiction Over Indian Tribal Governments

By Patrick Sulivan, Dickinson Wright PLLC, Gaming Legal News

The National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) was enacted by Congress in 1935. The Act, also known as the Wagner Act after its champion, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner, passed the Senate in May 1935, the House in June 1935, and was signed into law by President Roosevelt on July 5, 1935. The Act’s purpose was to encourage workers’ collective bargaining rights and protect them from retribution for organizing unions. The Act created the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), a new agency, to enforce the new policy.

Despite the fact that Congress had enacted sweeping pro-Indian legislation in the form of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 in the previous year, the NLRA did not mention Indian tribes at any point. Until 2004, Indian tribes and tribally owned businesses were generally assumed to be beyond the jurisdiction of the labor legislation with few exceptions.

In 2004, the NLRB reversed that assumption with a ruling that it had jurisdiction over the San Manuel Casino pursuant to the NLRA. The matter originated from a complaint filed with the NLRB by UNITE HERE!, a large California hotel and restaurant workers’ union, which complained that the Tribe had allowed a competing union, the Communication Workers of America, access to the casino to organize its employees while denying UNITE HERE! representatives access to the site. The Tribe moved to dismiss the proceeding for lack of jurisdiction.

The NLRB held that it had jurisdiction, reasoning that (1) the NLRA applies to tribal governments by its terms, despite any express reference to Indian tribes, (2) the legislative history of the NLRA did not suggest a tribal exception, and (3) federal Indian policy did not preclude the application for the NLRA to the commercial activities of tribal governments. The board found an unfair labor practice and ordered the Tribe to allow UNITE HERE! access to the casino workers.

The Tribe appealed the ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. UNITE HERE! intervened as a defendant. The Court determined that the question of the NLRA’s application to Indian tribes turned on two related questions: (1) whether application of the NLRA to San Manuel’s casino would violate federal Indian law by impinging upon protected tribal sovereignty, and (2) whether the term “employer” in the NLRA reasonably encompasses Indian tribal governments operating commercial enterprises.

In resolving these questions, the D.C. Circuit recognized the tension between the Supreme Court’s 1960 holding in Federal Power Commission v. Tuscarora Indian Nation, that “a general statute in terms applying to all persons includes Indians and their property interests,” and other Supreme Court precedents favoring tribal sovereignty, including the 1978 Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez holding that any impairment of tribal sovereignty required a clear expression of Congressional intent in the statutory text. The Court resolved this tension by stating that “if the general law relates only to the extra-governmental activities of the tribe, and in particular activities involving non-Indians, then application of the law might not impinge on tribal sovereignty.” Ultimately, the Court held that the impact of NLRB jurisdiction on the Tribe’s sovereignty was “negligible in this context, as the Tribe’s activity was primarily commercial,” that the Board’s decision as to the scope of the term “employer” in the NLRA was permissible, and affirmed the Board’s jurisdiction over the casino.

More recently, in Michigan, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe has appealed an NLRB ruling that the Tribe violated the NLRA. In October 2014, the NLRB ordered the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe to reinstate an employee allegedly fired for union organizing at the Tribe’s casino. The Tribe appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. If that Court rules that the NLRB lacks jurisdiction over the Tribe, that decision would create a circuit split and likely end up before the United States Supreme Court.

The NLRB website states “The Board asserts jurisdiction over the commercial enterprises owned and operated by Indian tribes, even if they are located on a tribal reservation. But the Board does not assert jurisdiction over tribal enterprises that carry out traditional tribal or governmental functions.”

In January, Kansas Republican Senator Jerry Moran introduced S.248, the “Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2015.” The Bill would amend the NLRA to exclude “any enterprise or institution owned and operated by an Indian tribe and located on its Indian lands.” At its February 2015 Executive Council Winter Session, the National Congress of American Indians, the largest Native American policy organization, passed a resolution in support of the bill. A similar bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on the bill later this month.

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Largest Settlement a Turning Point in US-Navajo Nation Relations

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly (L) puts a blanket on the shoulders of U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell after a ceremonial signing of a record multi-million-dollar settlement, in Window Rock, Arizona, at the Navajo Nation, Sept. 26, 2014.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly (L) puts a blanket on the shoulders of U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell after a ceremonial signing of a record multi-million-dollar settlement, in Window Rock, Arizona, at the Navajo Nation, Sept. 26, 2014.

By Isabela Cocoli, Voice of America News
WASHINGTON—A record multi-million-dollar settlement between the United States government and the Navajo Nation has been seen as a turning point in relations between the Federal government and the entire Indian nation. It is the largest sum ever paid by the U.S. government to a single Indian tribe.Within the territory of the United States are 562 nations — ethnically-, culturally- and linguistically-diverse Native American tribes recognized by the United States as sovereign governments. The largest is the Navajo Nation, whose territory stretches more than 70,000 square kilometers across three western states.While the tribal governments enforce laws on their territory and license and regulate activities, the federal government holds the vast majority of Indian lands, money and resources in trust for the tribes, and is required to manage them in a way that benefits the tribes and individual Native Americans.

The Navajo Nation sued the federal government in 2006 and sought $900 million in damages for mismanagement of resources and trust accounts since at least 1946.

Significant investment needed

The claims in the case involved essentially three things: one, the Federal government as trustee was responsible for negotiating a contract for the extraction of natural resources for the Navajo Nation’s property; two, the government was responsible for monitoring the performance under the contract to make sure that the Navajo Nation was paid the royalties due; and three, as trustee the United States was obligated to invest the proceeds in a commercially appropriate way.

Andrew Sandler, who represented the Navajo Nation in the suit, said the settlement for $554 million is an equitable deal for both parties. It comes at a time when the Navajo Nation needs significant investment in several areas — from education to housing — and he said it will go a long way toward addressing those needs.

“The Navajo Nation is plagued by an unemployment rate as high as 50 percent. It is in desperate need for educational resources, for infrastructure resources, for roads, for water, and many other things,” said Sandler. “This $500-plus million will go a long, long way to improving the quality of life for the Navajo people.”

The signing ceremony took place late last month in Window Rock, Arizona, which serves as the capital of the Navajo Nation. Navajo official Rick Abasta told VOA that there were compromises on both sides.

“There was a little bit of compromise on the Nation’s part in accepting this $554 million settlement. But I think the bigger picture was to end the litigation against the federal government, because of course that has a cost as well, and move forward with improving the Nation and utilizing these funds,” he said.

Aiding tribal communities

In various public statements, U.S. officials had acknowledged that the Federal government had failed in its obligation as trustee. However, the deal reflects Washington’s commitment to upholding its trust responsibility to Indian Country and to building strong, prosperous and resilient tribal communities.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly said the agreement was symbolic of the evolving relationship between the Navajo Nation and the U.S. government.

“The $554 million represented in this settlement is more than just the end of a legal battle. It is not just fulfilling the trust responsibility of our trustee, nor is it full compensation for the loss of revenue and the harm caused by the federal government’s actions over decades,” he said. “This settlement marks a turning point in our relationship with the federal government, and I’m hoping to see that before Obama leaves.”

U.S. tribes have filed more than 100 lawsuits against the federal government. Since early 2012, the government has resolved about 80 of them, amounting to $2.5 billion.