UKB says land-trust win a ‘springboard’ to federal funds
TAHLEQUAH — The wheels of justice, while slow, according to United Keetoowah Band leaders, finally turned in their favor with a court victory in the tribe’s longstanding fight to place 76 acres of land in Tahlequah in trust.
On Sept. 5, the U.S. Court of Appeals 10th Circuit vacated a 2017 injunction that prevented the land from being placed in trust in the case of United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians v. the Cherokee Nation. The result, according to UKB leaders, “will impact generations of future Keetoowahs to come.”
“It’s been 69 years since the beginning of our federal recognition,” Chief Joe Bunch said. “We’ve been called various names throughout the time, at one time a dormant tribe, at one time an error in the federal registry. Collectively, what that (decision) means is we’re like all the other federally recognized tribes with land in trust. It’s the opportunity that’s there — the ability to apply for and receive grants that have criteria such as land in trust.”
In 2000, the UKB purchased the undeveloped tract of land — which lies within the CN’s jurisdictional boundaries — for its future tribal and culture center in Tahlequah. Four years later, the tribe submitted an application to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to place the land in trust, thus establishing a UKB tribal land base, but it wasn’t until 2011 that it was approved.
“The (Cherokee) Nation sued Department of the Interior and BIA officials (in 2014), with the UKB intervening as defendants, challenging the BIA’s decision on several fronts,” court documents state. “The district court found in favor of the (Cherokee) Nation, determining that the BIA’s decision to take the subject parcel into trust was ‘arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and otherwise not in accordance with the law.’”
The CN’s complaint requested the court declare that the UKB was not a “successor in interest” to the CN’s former reservation or treaty territory and that the Cherokee Nation’s consent was required for taking land into trust within the tribe’s boundaries. In 2013, then-CN Attorney General Todd Hembree said the Cherokee Nation has always had “exclusive jurisdiction over” the 14 counties that make up its boundaries. He said the BIA’s belief that the UKB and CN are both predecessors of the CN “brought over here through the forced removal” was troubling because the UKB formed under the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act.
The Court of Appeals’ Sept. 5 decision states that the Secretary of Interior “has authority to take the Subject Parcel into trust under section 3 of the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936. The BIA was therefore not required to consider whether the UKB meets the IRA’s definition of ‘Indian.’ Nor was the BIA required to obtain the Nation’s consent before taking the land into trust. We also hold that the BIA’s application of its regulations was not arbitrary and capricious. Accordingly, we reverse the district court and vacate the injunction preventing the Secretary from taking the Subject Parcel into a trust.”
Responding to the court opinion, Cherokee Nation leaders say they are “carefully considering further legal options.”
“Nothing in the court’s decision changes the Cherokee Nation’s governmental authority within the reservation boundaries, or alters the long-standing treaties that bind the Cherokee Nation and the United States,” new Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill said.
According to UKB Assistant Chief Jamie Thompson, “The wheels of justice turn slow, but they always turn in your favor if you do just what is right."
“The UKB has always complied with what the federal government has asked,” he said in a prepared statement.
Bunch said having land in trust “is just a springboard” to federal grants for health, education, and welfare.
“It’s just a mechanism that propels us further for those federal program dollars,” he said. “We truly have a history. We’re not the dormant tribe that was announced in Washington some 30 years ago.”
Bunch thanked past leaders who initiated the process and “certainly our council today for standing by that pledge to make this a better place for all Keetoowah people.” UKB leaders held their press conference in the tribe’s cultural center and museum located on the 76 acres in Tahlequah, named after former Chief John Hair, who was in attendance for the announcement.
“My heart, soul, my whole being is at ease,” Hair said. “I feel so good today that there are better things coming because of this decision. We’ve still got work to do, but it should be easier from this point on.”
Hair, who served the tribe for 20-plus years as a councilor and chief, spearheaded a bingo hall and smoke shops that financially boosted the tribe, according to the UKB. Bunch called Hair “instrumental” in the tribe’s success.
“Had he not had the fortitude and gumption to go for paper bingo some 30-odd years ago, that part of the legacy of the UKB would be nonexistent today,” Bunch said.
Hair turned 87 in April.
“So God has been good to me,” he said. “I’m glad I’m here to hear all this.”
The UKB is one of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, along with the CN and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“Today, we’re equal Cherokees, as our brothers in the eastern band and with the Cherokee Nation right down the road,” UKB Tribal Councilor Jeff Wacoche said. “That’s what we’ve been fighting for all this time.”
According to the UKB, its 14,000 members must meet unique requirements that include family listed on the 1949 Keetoowah Band Base Roll or the Final Dawes Roll. They must also possess at least a quarter Keetoowah Cherokee blood to receive a tribal identification card.
Click here to view the court documents.