Council, Ravalli County visit part of process
Elder Louie Adams with Tony Incashola tells a group of travelers some of the history of the Medicine Tree last April. The Medicine Tree is located on land owned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenail Tribes that is in the 'fee to trust' process. The land is within the borders of Ravalli County. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)
On November 20, members of Tribal Council and staff traveled to meet with Ravalli County Commissioners regarding county concerns about the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe’s effort to put land into trust status. The meeting has generated dozens of media accounts. Council wanted to put out a version of events that focused more on why the meeting took place.
The Tribes purchased 58 acres of land in 1998 that encompasses important sites like the Medicine Tree and surrounding hillside located within Ravalli County. To provide the highest level of protection for the site, Tribal leadership deemed it best to put the off-reservation land into trust status. It’s a right all tribes possess.
As part of the Federally-defined process, counties that are impacted, as well as the state, must be notified. Again, as part of the process, both state and county have the right within the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affair’s process to file objections. Such resistance doesn’t stop the process, but it does require the Tribes to more fully explain the reasoning behind putting a parcel of land into trust status. The meeting to share information about the parcel and address concerns was met with the November 20 meeting.
If objections to the fee to trust are not withdrawn by local officials, the net effect can be a significant delay in achieving trust status for the particular parcel. Some Tribes have had pending fee to trust property applications with local government objections, which have been pending for up to 13 years. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have not had this experience.
The intent of this article is to explain the work the Tribes have done in transferring lands from their private ownership (simple fee is the legal term), and the process of putting the land back into tribal trust, whereby the Federal government holds the land for our tribal government.
Trust land is held by the United States for the use and benefit of an Indian tribe. Most trust land is located on reservations. Tribes may also purchase land and petition the federal government to hold it in trust, protecting the land from encroachment or seizure. Actions affecting the title to trust lands, including sales, are subject to approval of the United States Secretary of Interior.
Tribes also have the right to convert tribally-owned lands, like the Medicine Tree land, into tribal trust lands. The process involves the Department of Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, Solicitors, and Tribal and Bureau of Indian Affairs staff. This is a complicated process but it is an act of Tribal sovereignty and an exercise of Tribal rights.
According to a guide put out by the Native American Journalists Association, the federal Indian trust responsibility is considered one of the more important principles in federal Indian law. It is a legally enforceable fiduciary obligation by the United States to protect tribal lands, assets, resources, and treaty rights. Supreme Court rulings suggest that trust responsibility entails legal as well as moral duties.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will continue to take every effort to secure the highest protections possible for our sacred sites. Preserving and protecting our culture remains the highest priority and no amount of opposition or obstacle will stall tribal efforts to practice our cultural ways.
Today, the Tribes own an estimated 63 percent of the reservation land base. It took nearly 80 years to restore the Tribal land base from a low of 34 percent to 63 percent. That achievement has come at a great cost and required an unrelenting vision, persistence, and dedication.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a large land based Tribes and this does have certain benefits in terms of Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs policy consultation. In the past four years, approximately 70,000 acres of fee simple land was restored to Tribal trust status. This expensive process was funded by Tribal revenues. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes lead the nation in restoring fee land to trust status, which is a Tribal Council and Department of Interior priority. The fee-to-trust process restores the native “trust” home land that was lost and taken from the Tribes. Several information guides are posted on the Bureau of Indian Affairs web site, www.BIA.gov regarding fee to trust.