Restoring Land: Fee-to-Trust and Native Sovereignty

April 1, 2021 12:00 pm — 1:30 pm
Webinar Only

An ELI & DC Bar Association, Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Community Co-Sponsored Public Webinar

While there has been speculation surrounding the scope of the 2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma decision, this case largely affirmed the status quo in Oklahoma. McGirt may have broader implications in future decisions, but, importantly, it did not address one of the most pressing issues facing Native Americans: restoring tribal land illegally seized by the United States government. Between 1887 and 1934, federal policies resulted in Indigenous peoples in the continental U.S. being dispossessed of 90 million acres of their lands. Tribal land and sovereignty are conjoined, with the extent of tribal jurisdiction authority defined by trust status. Moreover, many federal programs designed to benefit tribes are only available to tribes on trust or reservation lands.

The Trump administration made significant revisions to the process in which tribes acquire trust land. Most notably, the Department of the Interior (DOI) issued the Memorandum “Delegated Authority for Off-Reservation Fee to Trust Decisions,” which resulted in significantly slower reviews of off-reservation trust applications. Ultimately, this led to merely 18,000 acres of land being put into trust per year, considerably less than the nearly 70,000 acres per year during the Obama administration. Additionally, DOI froze the process of fee-to-trust acquisition in Alaska, which has one of the largest Indigenous populations in the U.S. Finally, DOI took unprecedented action in ordering the disestablishment of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation, despite DOI’s prior commitment to take no actions until the resolution of litigation.

Under the Biden administration, experts anticipate a reversal of this Memoranda, as well as a renewed commitment to the Mashpee’s reservation. Ultimately, addressing the ongoing challenges of restoring tribal lands will require significant further action. Join the Environmental Law Institute and leading panelists to explore the opportunities and challenges of restoring tribal lands by the new administration.

Cynthia R. Harris, Director, Tribal Programs; Deputy Director, Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programming; and Staff Attorney, Environmental Law Institute, Moderator
Melody McCoy, Attorney, Native American Rights Fund
James T. Meggesto, Partner, Holland & Knight LLP
Richard Peterson, President, Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska
Sharlene Round Face, Chief, Division of Real Estate Services, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior
Martha Saenz, Senior Policy Specialist, Institute for State Tribal Relations, National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL)
David Weeden, Tribal Councilman, and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

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