House Adopts Tribes’ Land Trust Bills in Rare Display of Bipartisan Unanimity

By John Haughey
John Haughey
John Haughey
John Haughey reports on public land use, natural resources, and energy policy for The Epoch Times. He has been a working journalist since 1978 with an extensive background in local government and state legislatures. He is a graduate of the University of Wyoming and a Navy veteran. He has reported for daily newspapers in California, Washington, Wyoming, New York, and Florida. You can reach John via email at
February 6, 2023Updated: February 6, 2023

There’s not much consensus these days in the fractious U.S. House of Representatives. But for two proposals presented to the chamber floor on Feb. 6, there was a rare glimpse of what bipartisan accord looks like.

The House—in proceedings orchestrated by Speaker Pro. Tem. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene—adopted a pair of bills granting Native American tribes’ requests for trust designations on lands in Tennessee and California, ceding them to the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) as shields against development.

Both measures had been previously approved the House, including in November 2021 in 407-16 votes, but failed to advance out of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. They both advanced Feb. 6 in roll call votes without audible dissent.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), places 76 acres of federal land managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) into trust on behalf of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. The land in Monroe County, Tennessee, includes the birthplace of Cherokee warrior and scholar Sequoyah.

The measure, HR 548, would also convey 20 acres of permanent easements across TVA land to the Eastern Band, a federally recognized tribe based in western North Carolina.

As defined by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), “trust land is territory, whereby one party agrees to hold title to the property for the benefit of another party. Placing tribal land into a trust is the process where the [U.S.] Department of the Interior acquires the title to a land and holds it for the benefit of a tribe or individual tribal members.”

“Once in trust, these lands will be used primarily for memorializing and interpreting the history and culture of Cherokee people, as well as for recreational activities,” the bill states.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee is one of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes. The land falls within the ancestral homelands of the Cherokee Nation, which spans parts of seven states—Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia. 

When TVA built Tellico Dam in 1979, large swaths of Cherokee lands were flooded. The TVA granted the Cherokee management of their impacted lands along the Little Tennessee River. The easement makes permanent that 1980s’ era agreement.

“My bill returns important historic sites back to the Eastern Band of Cherokee to the descendants of those who resisted” forced displacement in the 1820s Trail of Tears, Fleischmann said, adding that he was “proud to be part of the process to safeguard their story.”

He called on the House and, especially the Senate, to get the bill onto “President Biden’s desk in a timely manner.”

“This legislation is well past overdue,” agreed Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.).

California Tribe Buys Back Its Own Stolen Land

The House also advanced the proposed Pala Band of Mission Indians Land Transfer Act of 2023, which would place 1,721 acres in San Diego County, California, into trust on behalf of the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

HR 423, filed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), would place into trust Chokla in Gregory Canyon, described in the bill as a “mountain of great cultural significance to the Pala Band and many tribes throughout Southern California.”

According to the bill, the land also includes “the site of an ancestral village, rock art paintings, cultural artifacts, and is home to culturally important plants and animals. Once the land is in trust, the Pala Band intends to preserve this sacred land in its natural state.”

The 1,721 acres was part of the Pala Band’s original reservation but was sold to private concerns and used as a quarry. It was later designated by San Diego County as a future landfill site.

When the land “fell into bankruptcy,” the 918-member Pala Band purchased it in 2016 “at their own expense in order to gift it, essentially, to the federal government,” Issa said.

Issa, noting that his Southern California congressional district includes 21 native American reservations, said the trust designation not only serves the Pala Band by protecting an area they deem sacred from development but also the people of San Diego County by shielding a key desert watershed from development.

In 2021, there was marginal resistance among some Republicans to transferring taxable property into a trust where it can no longer be assessed by state and local governments.

But the local economy and nearby property values will “be more than compensated” by the Pala Band’s investments in remedying runoff issues with agriculture and gaming revenues on land that now “failed to even qualify as a landfill,” he said.

Issa mocked commentary from several unnamed Republicans that the bills were akin in importance to “naming a post office—although I would submit naming a post office after a hero has its merits.”

He said the bill is “an important piece of legislation for a people who have done everything we have asked them to do and more.”

Issa said the bill was adopted by the House two years ago “and not much has happened since except more time has passed.” He called on the Senate to approve the measure this year.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.) said the bills “have significance beyond the acreage being transferred” to the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes who are stewards of 56 million acres of trust lands, providing the economic opportunities that will help regain their cultures, protect their heritages, and solidify their place “in this great land” as “peoples who could not be vanquished out of existence.”

The DOI supports both proposals, stating they “align with the Biden administration’s commitment to restoration of homelands to federally recognized tribes.”