The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs has approved a land application from the Samish Indian Nation that the tribe hopes will end years of struggle when it comes to its property rights.
“It’s a great Christmas present for the tribe,” said Samish Chairman Tom Wooten.
The approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs gets the tribe one step closer to bringing a 6.7-acre plot of land into trust, which would give the tribe authority over how to develop and tax the land.
But more importantly, Wooten said, it demonstrates that the tribe is eligible to bring land into trust, something that has been uncertain until now.
“That’s the exciting part,” he said. “It gives the tribe control of the land we own.”
The property in question, near Campbell Lake on Fidalgo Island, is adjacent to a plot of undeveloped land owned by the tribe, he said.
Wooten said the tribe submitted this application about seven years ago, with plans to eventually build a road on the property to improve access to the adjacent property.
The delay in getting the application approved, he said, was largely due to a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said tribes could only place land into trust if they could prove they had dealings with the government before the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
A 1969 clerical error erased the Samish tribe’s federal recognition, and because of this the tribe has faced difficulty bringing land into trust, Wooten said.
“Because of our history re-litigating our recognition, our history has been a lot tougher (than other tribes),” he said.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs worked with the tribe to successfully bring land into trust before the Supreme Court ruling, but not since.
Samish Indian Nation General Manager Leslie Eastwood said the tribe has nine other land-into-trust applications being reviewed by the federal government.
“This is basically what we’ve been waiting for for 10 years now,” she said. “The tribe is now considered eligible to take land into trust.”
With the approval of this application, Eastwood said the public has until Dec. 14 to file an appeal with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
If none is filed, she predicts the deed will transfer in early 2019 after a final environmental review.
When land is brought into trust, a tribe has the authority to exercise its sovereignty, allowing it to do things such as offer sales tax exemptions on construction and enforce the law on the property.
Wooten said he hopes this recent approval from the federal government will pave the way for approval on some of the tribe’s other applications.
“I have no idea how all that stuff works in D.C. I wish I did,” he said. “But I expect all of this to keep moving.”
For instance, the tribe has long been awaiting federal permission to move forward on a casino and gas station on Highway 20.
The process for receiving a gaming license is different than the land-into-trust application, Wooten said. But seeing progress here makes him optimistic for the future.