Advisers to President-elect Donald Trump are pushing the idea of transferring control of 56 million acres of American Indian lands from the federal government to the tribes that live there, in an effort to spur natural resource development.
Under current law, tribes have limited rights to use their own lands because it is actually owned by the federal government. Tribal officials govern Indian lands as sovereign nations, but federal officials ultimately decide the range of activities allowed on such lands.
Tribes can drill or mine on their lands, but federal agencies apply stricter regulations than on private property, Trump advisers told Reuters.
“We should take tribal land away from public treatment,” Oklahoma Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin, a Cherokee tribe member who co-chairs Trump’s Native American Affairs Coalition, told Reuters.
“As long as we can do it without unintended consequences, I think we will have broad support around Indian country,” Mullin said.
“It has to be done with an eye toward protecting sovereignty,” echoed Ross Swimmer, the co-chair on Trump’s Indian coalition. Swimmer used to be chief of Cherokee nation and worked in the Reagan administration.
Given the U.S. government’s record in dealing with tribes, some have expressed skepticism of such a proposal.
“Our spiritual leaders are opposed to the privatization of our lands, which means the commoditization of the nature, water, air we hold sacred,” Tom Goldtooth, a Native American who heads the Indigenous Environmental Network.
“Privatization has been the goal since colonization – to strip Native Nations of their sovereignty,” he said.
Trump advisers did not provide any details to Reuters about how they plan to protect tribal sovereignty or allocate mineral rights on Indian lands. The government has long made sure non-Indians could not buy reservation lands, and that’s been suggested as part of the privatization plan.