Politics & Government

Administration supports transferring land to California tribe

WASHINGTON — A Tuolumne County Indian tribe would gain more elbow room under a bill supported Wednesday by the Bush administration.

The administration's green light marks progress for the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, whose members currently feel crowded on a reservation east of Sonora. Through legislation, the tribe seeks to add 65 acres of developable land currently owned by the federal government.

"We're a small tribe," Kevin Day, chairman of the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, told a congressional panel, "and the importance of this bill is to provide housing for our tribal members."

For nearly three years, the tribe has been discussing the possibility of securing the 65 acres now overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The land would be added to an existing 350-acre reservation, much of which the tribe considers unsuitable for housing or other development.

Currently, only about 150 of the tribe's 400 members live on what is called the Tuolumne Rancheria, or reservation. The existing 64 homes are overcrowded and rife with "health and safety issues," Day advised the House Natural Resources Committee.

The bill authored by Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, would transfer three nearby BLM parcels into trust for the Me-Wuk Indians. A 50-acre parcel would be used for housing and a 15-acre parcel would be used for tribal buildings. A half-acre parcel includes a historic Me-Wuk cemetery.

"This was put together for good purposes," Radanovich said.

Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Jerry Gidner, in his first public comments on the bill since Radanovich introduced it in September, likewise declared the Bush administration pleased with the overall approach.

"The department has had a cooperative working relationship with the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians on this requested land transfer," Gidner testified.

With no apparent opposition either in the White House or on Capitol Hill, the Me-Wuk Indians now hope a companion bill will be introduced in the Senate. Accompanied by tribal members Lester Lingo and Reba Fuller, and the tribe's Washington-based attorney, Patricia Marks, Day spent part of this week pressing his case with staffers for California's two senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

Nationwide, many tribes want to expand their existing property. Through either legislation, as with the Me-Wuk Indians, or through an Interior Department administrative procedure, the tribes try to get land outside their reservation taken into trust.

The Mono Indians of the North Fork Rancheria, for instance, are trying through the administrative route to have 305 acres taken into trust north of Madera Municipal Airport. The tribe hopes to build a casino on the property.

The Me-Wuk Indians currently operate the Black Oak Casino in the rural community of Tuolumne, boasting some 1,013 slot machines and 24 table games. Day repeated several times Wednesday that the Me-Wuks' proposed reservation expansion is intended for housing and not for business.

"We don't want to expand our casino," Day said. "This has absolutely nothing to do with gaming."

The bill specifies that the 65 acres would be held in trust "for non-gaming purposes."

The tribe is also moving on a separate track to acquire an additional 300 acres, through an administrative procedure similar to what the North Fork Rancheria is going through. So far, although the Interior Department has approved the plan, this effort has been stalled because of a challenge filed by another local landowner with the Interior Board of Indian Appeals.