Padilla, Feinstein Bills to Strengthen Tribal Sovereignty, Return Sacred Land to California Tribes Signed Into Law

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) celebrated President Biden signing into law a series of bills to restore Tribal stewardship of sacred federal lands and ensure that our federal land management laws respect Tribal sovereignty. Collectively the bills place approximately 3,500 acres of land previously owned by the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management into trust for the benefit of two Tribal governments in California.

“The federal government has a duty to respect Tribal sovereignty and right the historic wrongs it has inflicted on Tribal governments,” said Senator Padilla. “Too often tribal nations are unable to simply access, cooperatively steward, or consult on the management of public lands that they find sacred. These newly signed laws were tribally-led, and the differences between them highlights that access to federal lands can mean something different to each Tribal government. I’m proud of the progress we are making to ensure Tribes can once again manage their ancestral and sacred lands in the way that they see fit, and I will continue ensuring that Tribes across the country are treated with the respect they deserve.”

“It’s wonderful news that President Biden has signed our three bills respecting Tribal sovereignty,” said Senator Feinstein. “They will ensure that the tribes have access to and stewardship over their ancestral and culturally sacred lands. I was proud to work with Senator Padilla and our partners in the House to pass these important bills.”

Agua Caliente Land Exchange Fee to Trust Confirmation Act

This law will take more than 2,500 acres of land in the San Jacinto Mountains into trust for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. It allows the Tribe to further their conservation efforts and practice consistent forest management. Congressman Raul Ruiz, M.D. (D-Calif.-36) led companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

“I am thrilled to see President Biden sign my bill, the Agua Caliente Land Exchange Fee to Trust Confirmation Act, into law,” said Dr. Ruiz. “This legislation fulfills an agreement between the federal government and the Tribe and will bolster conservation of local lands, help protect our environment, and honor the federal government’s trust responsibility to Tribal nations.  I look forward to supporting Chairman Milanovich and the Tribe manage these lands in accordance with their traditions and with respect for the environment and wildlife.”

The Palm Springs area east of Mt. San Jacinto is home to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (ACBCI) and has been officially set aside by the United States government since 1876. All the land traditionally held by the Cahuilla people has been divided into even and odd parcels – known as a “checkerboard” – between the tribe, federal government, and private landowners. Over the past few decades, ACBCI has been involved in a series of land transfers with the United States government to consolidate their land and reclaim historically and culturally valuable areas.

Taking this land into trust completes the BLM-ACBCI agreement and allows ACBCI and the Bureau of Land Management to consolidate the “checkerboard” landownership in and around the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. The goal of consolidating the landownership is to provide more logical and consistent land management.

Text of the Agua Caliente Land Exchange Fee to Trust Confirmation Act, which became law, is available here.

Katimiîn and Ameekyáaraam Sacred Lands Act

This law will transfer ownership of roughly 1,000 acres of sacred lands from the United States Forest Service (USFS) to the Interior Department to place those lands into trust for the benefit of the Karuk Tribe. The land transfer will ensure the Karuk people have uninterrupted access to their sacred sites, which the Karuk have used for ancestral ceremonies for centuries. These lands are considered to be the center of the Karuk world and sit at the heart of the Tribe’s culture, religion, and identity. Congressman Jared Huffman (D-Calif.-02) led the legislation in the House of Representatives.

“Today, we can finally correct a historic injustice and return sacred land to its rightful owners, the Karuk Tribe. Thanks to the partnership of Senator Padilla and the Karuk’s tireless work, our Sacred Lands Act is now law. These lands, known as Katimiîn and Ameekyáaraam, are not only majestic, they are central to Karuk history, religion, traditions, and identity. Placing them in trust ensures that the Karuk culture and way of life can endure for future generations,” Rep. Jared Huffman said.

The Karuk Tribe has lived and conducted ceremonies on the ancestral lands known as Katimiîn for time immemorial. According to Karuk tradition, Katimiîn is the center of the world and is where the Tribes’ annual World Renewal Ceremonies conclude. This area is essential to inter-generational teaching and learning needed to ensure future generations of Karuk people know and understand Karuk culture and customs. Currently, the tribe has a Special Use Permit with the United States Forest Service (USFS) that allows access to the grounds for ceremony. However, this access is not guaranteed and in some years the Tribe is interrupted by public intrusions during private and sacred components of the world renewal ceremonies.

Text of the Katimiîn and Ameekyáaraam Sacred Lands Act, which became law, is available here.

A map of the Katimiîn area can be found here.

Recreation and Public Purposes Tribal Parity Act

This law lets Tribal governments participate in an existing program known as the “Recreation and Public Purposes Act” that allows the Bureau of Land Management to sell and lease certain public lands below market value if those lands will be used for recreational or public purposes. This program currently allows for state and local governments to participate, but Tribal governments have been unfairly excluded from the program. The newly signed law corrects this inequity and ensures Tribal governments enjoy the same opportunities for federal land acquisition as state and local governments—a much needed effort to address longstanding barriers in the way our laws treat Tribal governments. Congressman Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.-01) led the legislation in the House of Representatives.

“The Recreation and Public Purposes Act was codified into law nearly a century ago, it’s long past time for Congress to correct this oversight and allow Tribal governments to have the same opportunities to purchase public lands that state and local governments do,” said Congressman LaMalfa. “I was pleased to work with Senators Padilla and Feinstein to pass this bipartisan legislation and strengthen the self-determination of Tribal governments.”

Under the Recreation & Public Purposes Act, conveyed land can be used for historic monument sites, campgrounds, schools, firehouses, law enforcement facilities, courthouses, health facilities, social service facilities, hospitals, parks, and fairgrounds. Tribal governments were omitted when the Recreation and Public Purposes Act first became law in 1926. This law allows Tribal governments to have the same opportunities as other governments to use public lands for these beneficial purposes.

Text of the Recreation and Public Purposes Act, which became law, is available here.


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