The federal government broke its word over a land deal with an Indian tribe from Idaho and Nevada, reports AP reporter John Miller, stymieing economic development plans that could include gaming and resurrecting native groups' enduring mistrust for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Click below for his full report on how the federal goverment transferred a 26-acre parcel along I-84 just east of Boise to the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, whose remote reservation has 40 percent unemployment, then canceled the transfer months later.
Feds reneged on land deal with tribe
By JOHN MILLER, Associated Press
MOUNTAIN HOME, Idaho (AP) — The federal government broke its word over a land deal with an Indian tribe from Idaho and Nevada, stymieing economic development plans that could include a bingo hall or casino — and resurrecting native groups' enduring mistrust for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Last October, a federal administrative law judge approved transfer of a 26-acre parcel just east of Boise along U.S. Interstate 84 to the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The tribes are headquartered on the isolated Duck Valley Indian Reservation but hope to develop an off-reservation-but-Indian owned property with possible gaming, agriculture or light manufacturing to boost its economy.
Though documents show Bureau of Indian Affairs regional director in Portland, Ore., Stanley Speaks, approved the deal last year, his agency's lawyers were telling the judge by March he should dump it on technical grounds: Federal law, they argued, forbid him from signing off on such a transaction.
The result: U.S. Department of Interior Chief Administrative Law Judge Earl Waits reversed his order on June 1, canceling the transfer.
Shoshone-Paiute lawyers said this sudden turnabout amounts to an illegal property taking that conjures up a bygone era when Indians accused the federal government of not honoring its treaties.
“It is precisely this kind of abusive conduct — in this case, informing a tribe they own certain lands and then purporting to reverse the decision — that has all too often been the hallmark of relations between the Bureau and Indian tribes,” wrote Keith Harper, the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes' lawyer, in a July 15 letter to BIA director Larry EchoHawk seeking help.
“The actions of the BIA to this point paint an embarrassing picture of the government approving a land transfer to the tribe and then arbitrarily taking the land in violation of the regional director's word,” Harper wrote.
EchoHawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and former Idaho attorney general, didn't return phone calls Tuesday or Wednesday through his Washington, D.C.-based spokeswoman, Nedra Darling.
EchoHawk's son, Paul EchoHawk, is representing members of the family that wants to transfer the property to the tribes.
Neither Speaks nor Department of Interior lawyer Colleen Kelley in Portland returned calls Wednesday seeking comment.
Waits also didn't return a phone call.
In 2009, the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes and heirs of a deceased Indian woman, Wallace Bruce Ogg, began talks to transfer a portion of an 80-acre parcel they owned to the tribe.
By shifting what's known as “restricted fee land” to tribal ownership, it could open the door to the tribe establishing a gaming operation even though it's located miles away from the Duck Valley reservation. The reservation's extreme isolation — between Mountain Home, Idaho and Elko, Nev., but 100 miles from both — has helped lead to a 40 percent unemployment rate among the 1,100 residents.
Waits ordered the transfer on Oct. 25; Speaks, who originally approved the deal Oct. 1, then told the tribe Dec. 17 the transfer was complete.
“The 1/3 restricted interest in the tract … has been transferred to the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes,” Speaks wrote to tribal leaders. “A copy of the title status report indicating the transfer of title to the tribes will be mailed to you.”
But it never arrived, and by March, documents show Speaks' office was trying to kill the deal.
Though Speaks' lawyer conceded the transfer would “further the preservation of Indian Country” as well as “tribal self-sufficiency and self-governance,” she contended that Waits overstepped his authority by dividing up the land the way he did: 26 acres of restricted land to the tribe, with 53 acres staying with Ogg's heirs.
“Approval of that agreement was beyond the scope of the statutory authority to consolidate (the tribes' and the heirs') interests during probate,” Kelley wrote on March 31.
Waits agreed in June, writing in his new order: “I lack subject matter jurisdiction.”
On July 1, the tribe and Ogg's heirs filed appeals of Waits' new order with the Department of Interior's Board of Indian Appeals.
Shoshone-Paiute Chairman Terry Gibson told the AP on Tuesday he's angered by this about-face long after the deal appeared completed. Elmore County had recorded the transfer order for the tribes.
It particularly galls Gibson that the 26 acres are part of aboriginal lands in southern Idaho that the tribes contends were stolen by the U.S. government following the Bannock War of 1877 — and now he's been blocked from getting just a small sliver of them back for his people.
Gibson said developing this new property less than 30 minutes from Idaho's largest population center in Boise to the west and the Mountain Home Air Force Base to the east — whether it's for a bingo hall or casino, greenhouses or light manufacturing — will generate income to help pay off a loan that's now holding together the tribal health care system, as well as build a new tribal administration office.
The old building was condemned.
“We have the perfect example of the old tactic of making promises to tribes, then on down the road, they take this land away from us,” Gibson said. “It's not like they'll be doing us some great favor by giving us our land back. But for them to make it as difficult as they can, I don't think that's proper.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.