California Enacts Law to Help Tribes Recover Ancestral Lands
SACRAMENTO – Last Friday on Native American Day, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law SB 712, Senator Ben Hueso’s (D-San Diego) legislation to rectify long-standing discriminatory practices by local governments that have deprived Native Americans of a fair process in their attempts to acquire ancestral lands.
The new law requires local governments to evaluate a federally-recognized tribe’s fee-to-trust acquisition application on its merits and prohibits the adoption or enforcement of a local policy that would prevent a fair evaluation. It also requires a local government that opposes an application, when responding to the Department of Interior’s request for comments, to include information provided by the tribe on the economic benefits that the tribe has made to the county from both the project that is subject of the application and the tribe’s contribution to the local jurisdiction in the last five years.
“SB 712 is an important part of California’s commitment to equity on all levels,” said Sen. Hueso. “Trust acquisitions are immensely beneficial to tribes but, unfortunately, are not often supported by local governments despite their merit. By requiring local governments to carefully consider the benefits of fee-to-trust acquisitions, this legislation will help the federal government evaluate the application more comprehensively and fairly.”
Historically, the relationship between the State of California and California Native Americans was fraught with violence, exploitation, dispossession of ancestral lands and attempted destruction of tribal communities. At the turn of the 20th century, the federal government took two-thirds of tribal land without due compensation. An important way by which eligible Native peoples can recover ancestral lands and rebuild self-determination is by applying for a fee-to-trust acquisition with the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs within the United States Department of Interior. Trust lands are synonymous with tribal authority and many federal programs and services are available only on these lands. For example, trust acquisitions provide tribes the ability to enhance housing and educational opportunities for their citizens, as well as protections for many who rely on subsistence hunting and agriculture, which are essential elements of their culture.
The fee-to-trust acquisition process allows local governments that have jurisdiction over the subject lands to submit comments over any potential impacts on regulatory jurisdiction, real property taxes, and special assessments. Unfortunately, it is uncommon for a local government to support such application, even if the impacts or losses are minimal and the benefit to Native peoples and surrounding communities are substantial.
What supporters of SB 712 are saying:
“It’s a great day for Indian Country across California. We have worked tirelessly for decades to get to this moment in history where we can work with cities and counties on applications to buy back our land without a direct blanket opposition from the local government. This new law will help strengthen our relationships with our communities by creating more economic and prosperous opportunities for our neighbors. Thank you, Senator Hueso, for your leadership, support and determination to carry this legislative proposal. Your hard work and dedication will always be respected. You are a true champion of change.” – Chairman Bo Mazzetti of the Rincon Tribe, which sponsored the legislation.
“It is encouraging to see this law passed on American Indian Day, a day that we honor the contributions of our ancestors. For far too long, local governments blocked attempts by tribes to regain our ancestral homelands. This bill requires local governments to act fairly when dealing with tribes on fee to trust applications. It was only a few months ago that San Diego County finally repealed its blanket opposition to all fee to trust applications. This law is a much-needed step in the right direction. We are grateful to the Governor and Senator Hueso for making this important change.” – Erica M. Pinto, Chairwoman of Jamul Indian Village.
“It is important that California continues taking steps to rectify historic injustices for our Native communities. I commend Senator Hueso for his work on SB 712, which will help Tribes to recover ancestral lands, and remain committed to partnering together on policies to ensure greater equity for Native people.” – Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), coauthor of the legislation.