Secretary Jewell Celebrates Agreement with Seminole Tribe of Florida to Help Spur Investment, Commercial Development

Tribal leasing regulations foster economic development, represent another step furthering tribal self-determination

Source: U.S. Department of the Interior

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – As part of President Obama’s commitment to empowering American Indian and Alaska Native tribal nations and strengthening their economies, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Michael Black today joined Seminole Tribal Chairman James E. Billie to formally approve tribal leasing regulations that will help spur investment and commercial development on the Seminole Tribe’s reservations.

Upon approval of the tribal regulations by the Department of the Interior, tribes may approve land leases without Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) approval, fostering tribal self-governance in the approval of leases for homes and small businesses in Indian Country.

“The Seminole Tribe of Florida will now decide for itself how it wants to do business on its lands – from making it easier for families to buy and build houses to opening businesses in the communities where they have lived for generations,” said Secretary Jewell, who also serves as chair of the White House Council on Native American Affairs. “Today’s agreement will encourage economic development and help create jobs while strengthening tribal sovereignty and self-determination by putting these decisions back in the hands of the tribe.”

Today’s signing ceremony comes on the heels of the White House Tribal Nations Conference held in December 2014, when leaders from all 566 federally recognized tribes were invited to Washington, D.C. to interact directly with the President and senior cabinet and administration officials. The conference – the sixth for the Obama Administration – continues to build on the President’s commitment to strengthen the government-to-government relationship with Indian Country.

“This is an important day for the Seminole Tribe, which will be able to process residential and business leases without the need for BIA approval,” said Chairman Billie. “This authority will allow the Tribe to better serve its members and create new opportunities for economic development on the Tribe’s reservations. We appreciate the Department’s assistance in working with the Tribe through the approval process.”

“Tribal self-determination means the tribe will now decide how its lands may be used for the good of its members and how it wants to do business on its lands,” said BIA Director Black. “The Seminole Tribe’s endeavors contribute to the local, state and regional economies and the tribe’s leasing initiative will further that economic vitality and contribution.”

Tribal council members and several tribal government officials joined Secretary Jewell, Director Black and Chairman Billie during a signing ceremony this morning at Seminole Tribal Headquarters in Hollywood, Florida.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida resides in communities located on six component reservations: Big Cypress, Brighton, Fort Pierce, Hollywood, Immokalee and Tampa. The Tribe expects to use its new authority for business, residential and biomass energy development, as well as for cultural, educational, recreational, spiritual, and other purposes.

Under the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership Act (HEARTH Act), signed by President Obama in July 2012, federally recognized tribes may develop and implement their own laws governing leasing of federal tribal trust lands for residential, business, renewable energy and other purposes. The law provides that such tribes may lease their lands without federal approval, promoting greater investment in tribal communities and job creation, both of which support tribal self-determination.

The Secretary’s action today brings to 15 the number of federally recognized tribes with leasing regulations approved under the HEARTH Act. An additional 14 tribes have HEARTH Act applications under current review or modification. A full list of approved regulations and additional information about the HEART Act is available HERE.

The HEARTH Act complements a parallel effort Interior undertook to overhaul the BIA regulations that govern its process for approving surface leases on lands the federal government holds in trust for Indian tribes and individuals. As trustee, Interior manages about 56 million surface acres in Indian Country.

The new regulations were finalized in December 2012 and represent the most comprehensive reform of the BIA’s antiquated leasing process. The new regulations fundamentally change the way the BIA does business, providing clarity by identifying specific processes – with enforceable timelines – through which the BIA must review leases. The regulation also establishes separate, simplified processes for residential, business, and renewable energy development, rather than using a “one-size fits all” approach that treats a lease for a single family home the same as a lease for a large wind energy project.

How to support tribal self-determination

Why today€’s congressional policies fail to empower tribes economically

By Dennis Worden, Al Jazeera America

Kristoffer Tripplaar / Getty Image

Kristoffer Tripplaar / Getty Image

Nearly 45 years ago, President Richard Nixon delivered a special message to Congress on Indian affairs.

One of his key recommendations was to empower tribes economically. The policy shift was intended to enable tribes to govern their own affairs rather than “terminating” them — a failed policy from the 1950s in which the United States attempted to end its relationships with tribal governments recognized as sovereign.

In the decades since Nixon’s message, there have been significant changes — mostly for the better — to embolden tribes in the areas of health, education and business development. But great needs remain because of widespread unemployment, housing shortages and high suicide rates. While progress has been made since 1970, challenges remain, and the potential to slide back toward de facto termination is real.

The good and the bad

As a result of Nixon’s policy, tribes are recognized as sovereign entities that have the right and responsibility to foster and grow their economies for their citizens. Tribes engage in business ventures on the basis of the needs of and resources available to their communities, and if tribes undertake ventures that utilize local resources and expertise, they are more likely (or at least better positioned) to succeed. Economic growth is essential because many tribal communities have suffered from chronically high unemployment.

This is the essence of self-determination: enabling tribes to decide for themselves what works best. Self-determination is critical because cookie-cutter programs lack the flexibility and nuance to acknowledge the diversity of resources and opportunities that might enable each tribe to create its own strong economy.

There are some examples of economic successes, such as Ho-Chunk Village, in Winnebago, Nebraska, which has garnered praise for its strong economic growth and has dropped unemployment to approximately 10 percent, down from more than 50 percent in 1994, primarily through government contracting. Its reinvestment of profits to create housing and job opportunities in the community has also drawn praise. But such successes are generally considered outliers in the public consciousness, which tends to view tribal communities as destitute, plagued by high unemployment or reliant solely on gaming ventures. Because of that, the public may not fully comprehend the degree of desperation — and potential for success — embedded in Indian Country today and Congress’ role in its continuance.

Though Nixon left other harmful legacies, the ideal of tribal self-determination remains just and powerful.

Recent congressional policies regarding Native American communities gravely erode the possibility for economic success through empowerment. Over the past several years, there have been efforts to restrict gaming and opportunities for government contracting as well as strong resistance to the resolution of legal issues regarding Indian land that deters outside investment.

There are two distinct problems with Congress’ approach to considering and enacting legislation that affects tribal economic development.

First, Congress has largely acted on tribal economic legislation in piecemeal fashion; one hand does not know what the other hand is doing. Instead, Congress and Indian Country need to use a more holistic approach by building consensus around policies that promote continued economic growth in tribal communities rather than tackling individual issues. And legislators need to understand communities’ capital, educational, regulatory and other needs as an entity in order to provide the best chance for success.

Second, in recent years, there have been more deliberate efforts to restrict programs or authorities that facilitate various economic opportunities for tribes. As tribal enterprises grow, so does congressional attention to tribal businesses and, increasingly, proposed policies have emerged that would hinder growth.

For instance, efforts to restrict tribal gaming — particularly off-reservation gaming — have been obstacles for at least a decade. In addition, efforts to take away provisions in federal contracting programs that provide unique participation of businesses owned by entire tribal communities would undermine Native American communities that do not have significant gaming resources and thus must find other economic ventures.

The proposed changes would treat Native American community-owned businesses (providing for hundreds or thousands of people) the same as individually owned businesses for purposes of qualifying for federal small business programs. But these programs work well. Gaming and federal contracting programs account for more than $35 billion in revenue to tribal communities, which is a large sum, though nowhere near enough to meet the needs of 566 communities across the country.

Third, the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking Act significantly diminished tribal tobacco manufacturing and distribution on reservations. The law prohibits tobacco distribution through the U.S. Postal Service, making it extremely difficult to process tobacco sales made through the Internet, a niche in the market where tribes and individual Native Americans were particularly successful. When it took effect in 2010, the Seneca Nation anticipated the law would result in 1,000 jobs lost on its territory alone.

Land trusts

Perhaps most significant, Congress has not been able to address the devastating 2009 Supreme Court decision Carcieri v. Salazar, which limited the ability of the federal government to take land into trust for tribes. This has had wide-ranging effects on tribal economic development.

The case turned on the court’s interpretation of a key law passed in 1934 that allows the government to take land into trust only for tribes that are “now under federal jurisdiction.”

The court determined Congress meant only tribes recognized by the government in 1934, not a tribe that is currently under federal jurisdiction.

Land trusts facilitate housing, commercial construction and other tribal projects. Trust status ensures the land cannot be alienated and eliminates state and local taxation of that land. With the status of tribal trust land in question, external investors and businesses are wary of investing in tribal communities. Congress’ inability to enact a positive resolution results in lost economic opportunity for tribes.

Critical health

The interstate commerce clause of the Constitution states that Congress has the power to regulate commerce among the states and among the Indian tribes. Now is the time for Congress to reinvigorate this clause and the origins of self-determination in order to empower tribes, create jobs and honor the responsibilities of the United States toward Indian tribes.

As midterm elections loom and politicians on both sides of the aisle fret over unemployment of 6 to 7 percent, unemployment on tribal reservations is nearing 19 percent. In some communities it climbs higher than 60 or 70 percent. The need for economic development in Indian Country is critical to the health of the entire country because tribal communities are part of rural America, and when tribes succeed, surrounding communities succeed too. It means more people are employed, that more capital is circulating in local economies and that the government has to provide less financial assistance to individuals to meet basic needs.

Today we should recall that Nixon urged Congress to “support and encourage efforts [that] help Indians develop their own economic infrastructure.” Though Nixon left other harmful legacies, this ideal of self-determination remains just and powerful. Congress must recommit to the ideals of self-determination by enacting comprehensive legislation to further empower tribes economically.

Dennis Worden is a fellow with the Center for Global Policy Solutions Greenhouse through the OpEd Project. He is a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the legislative director for the Native American Contractors Association.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.

Indian affairs receives 1.2 increase in fiscal 2015 budget request

By Ryan McDermott, Fierce Government

washburn_aaaBureau of Indian Affairs programs would receive a 1.2 percent increase over this year’s enacted amount under the White House budget proposal for the next fiscal year.

The budget request totals $2.6 billion for Indian Affairs – $33.6 million more than fiscal 2014 enacted, said Interior Department Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn during a Senate Indian Affairs Committee Wednesday hearing.

 

Tribal self-determination and self-governance programs have eclipsed direct service by the Indian Affairs Bureau at DOI, Washburn said.

More than 62 percent of the appropriations are provided directly to tribes and tribal organizations through grants, contracts and compacts for tribes to operate government programs and schools, Washburn said.

 

But committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said the budget request isn’t enough.

 

“Every line item is deficient,” Tester said. “1.2 percent is not right. This needs some work.”

 

He said the percentage increase for Indian Affairs pale in comparison to increases at other part of the DOI. The National Park Service request is for 22.2 percent more than this year and the Land Management Bureau request is 6.1 percent more.

 

But Washburn argued that Indian Affairs budgets under Obama have been larger in the last five years than another other parts of the DOI. The BIE budget request for fiscal 2015 makes up $2.6 billion of the agency’s $11 million total request.

 

Other parts of the DOI might see a larger percentage increase under the request, Washburn said, but they make up much smaller parts of the agency so the comparison is apple to oranges.

 

For more:
go to the hearing page (webcast and prepared tstimony available)