SHAWNEE (AP) — U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell signed an agreement Monday with the Citizen Potawatomi Nation that gives them greater control of their trust land.
Jewell was joined on her first trip to Oklahoma as a Cabinet official by Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn and U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
Under the HEARTH Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama last year, federally recognized tribes can approve regulations for long-term leasing on Indian lands directly, rather than wait for approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The federal government holds land on American Indian reservations in trust, and that land cannot be bought or sold.
Previously, if a tribe or tribe member wanted to build a house or business, the Interior Department had to approve a “lease” of the land or mortgages, which sometimes took years to accomplish.
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation is the sixth tribe to take advantage of the law that is meant to help spur economic and residential development in Indian Country and, Jewell hopes, wind and geothermal projects.
“The biggest thing to lift people up is housing and jobs,” Jewell said at the tribe’s Cultural Heritage Center in Shawnee.
Under the new law, the Department of Interior must only give one-time authority to a tribe’s new leasing regulations, as opposed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs approving each land lease individually. This should expedite the approval process. Washburn noted that during the three weeks of the government shutdown in October, the BIA didn’t approve any leases on reservation land.
Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation and usually a critic of Obama, credited the president during the signing ceremony for his record of working closely with tribes to empower and improve their status.
Though only six of the more than 500 federally recognized tribes have taken advantage of the law, Jewell said more will when they are ready, as it takes a certain level of tribal governance and infrastructure to establish and implement the regulations.
Citizen Potawatomie Nation Chairman John Barrett said it was noteworthy that the first project that will open up the tribe’s trust land will be a sporting goods store.
Jack Barrett, owner of BDC Arms and Ammunition, is moving the archery, gun range and store closer to the tribal complex, allowing for more traffic to pass by.
“We’re not really competing with other gun ranges. It’s other entertainment,” said Barrett, a Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member. “Partnering with them really fits in.”
The trip was Jewell’s first to Oklahoma as interior secretary, but she knows the Sooner State well. Her husband was born in Tulsa and the couple once lived in Oklahoma.