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U.S. House hearing highlights barriers to economic development on tribal lands

Water flows from a sink faucet.
Steve Johnson via Flickr

Members of Congress and tribal officials discussed the barriers to economic development across tribal lands during a U.S. House hearing March 1.

Throughout the Subcommittee on Indian and Insular Affairs’ oversight hearing, several members, including those from Wyoming and New Mexico, called for tribal economic sovereignty, while tribal officials shared their experiences and suggestions.

About 56 million acres of land is held in trust for tribal nations, which means tribes need federal approval for the purchase, sale and leasing of land for economic development.

“Expanding the ability of tribes to use their land in ways without needing to come to the government for approval is crucial for furthering self-determination and economic security,” said Rep. Harriet Hageman, R-Wyo., who chairs the subcommittee.

Among the tribal officials testifying was Joseph Rupnick, chairman of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation. He described the protracted fee-to-trust process required when the tribe decided to add a convenience store onto a shopping center.

“We started this project 22 years ago and it is still not finished,” he said. “Nowhere in America, other than Indian Country, does this kind of bureaucratic stranglehold occur.”

Chairman Dustin Klatush of the Confederate Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and others testifying asked Congress for more freedom for tribes to enter into leases. He called for the passage of Rep. Hagemen’s bill that would authorize 99-year leases of land held in trust. He said such flexibility helps keep outside developers interest in projects.

Wavalene Saunders, vice chairwoman of the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona, highlighted the barriers poor roads, and a lack of utilities and internet access have on economic development.

"There is no way around the fact that a tribe needs a strong infrastructure foundation in order to be able to develop a strong economic base," she said during her testimony.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2023 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Emma Gibson