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Cole trying to save Indian land bills after Trump tweet


President Donald Trump’s tweet attack on an Indian land bill this week helped derail a related measure by Rep. Tom Cole that was on a fast track to passage.

Cole, R-Moore, said his legislation, the product of 10 years of effort, was “collateral damage” after Trump urged lawmakers not to pass a bill backed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren related to a tribe in her state.

The two bills were on the U.S. House agenda on Wednesday for consideration under a fast-track process that requires two-thirds approval. Democratic leaders pulled both bills after the Trump tweet fearing they might not meet the high threshold to pass.

Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation and the leading authority in Congress on Indian matters, said he’s hoping both bills can be salvaged. The House is planning to consider the bill next week that Trump tweeted against. Cole’s bill may also return to the agenda.

In his tweet, the president stated: “Republicans shouldn’t vote for H.R. 312, a special interest casino Bill, backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren. It is unfair and doesn’t treat Native Americans equally!”

The bills by Cole and Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., involve the federal government’s role in taking land into trust for Native American tribes. Keating’s bill, the one Trump opposes, relates to a specific tribe in Massachusetts, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

“This is a tribe that’s been living in that area for about 12,000 years,” Cole said. “These are the people that met the Pilgrims. So it’s a pretty significant group in American history.

“They’ve been trying to get a land base back and they got one. And they want to have a gaming facility.”

The Trump administration has threatened to remove the land from trust, an almost unprecedented act and one that concerns every tribe that has land in trust, Cole said.

Keating’s bill would give congressional approval to the Massachusetts tribe’s land in trust, which would put it out of reach of the administration.

Tribal trust land has a special status since it is typically outside of state jurisdiction; it is considered critical to tribal sovereignty.

Cole said the legislation, which he is cosponsoring, had been the victim of “egregious” misinformation and that it was “unbelievable” to single out Warren as a supporter.

The entire Massachusetts congressional delegation and the state’s government is backing the bill, Cole said. The main opposition, he said, is in neighboring Rhode Island, where private casino interests don’t want competition from the tribe.

Trump, a former casino owner, testified before Congress in 1993 against the expansion of Native American casinos.

Keating suggested in a tweet that Trump opposed the bill because of his alliance with a lobbyist for a Rhode Island casino. He called Trump's attack "a weak attempt to hide corrupt influence in a racist tweet.”

Contrary to Trump’s tweet, stopping the bill “would not be good for Native Americans,’’ Cole said.

“This bill should be considered on its merits.

“It will overwhelmingly pass. I would hope that the president of the United States, if he’s presented with a piece of legislation, won’t say: ‘I’m going to veto this just to get back at someone I don’t like.’’’

Indian leader comments on insult, legislation

Trump’s tweet revived the insult he has used about Warren, who falsely claimed Cherokee heritage during her first run for the Senate in 2012.

Warren’s Senate press secretary did not respond to a request for comment about the tweet.

Jefferson Keel, a Chickasaw who is president of the National Congress of American Indians, said, “Once again, we call on the President to refrain from using Pocahontas’ name in a disparaging manner. It’s insulting, disrespectful, and perpetuates the dehumanization of Native peoples.”

Keel also said pulling the bills last week was unfortunate, “particularly if they were pulled in response to a social media posting from our President.”

Legislation related to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe “ensures that a federally recognized tribal nation has a homeland for present and future generations,” Keel said.

If the president was concerned about equal treatment of all Native Americans, he would support Cole’s bill, Keel said.

Cole's effort

Cole has been trying for 10 years to “fix” a U.S. Supreme Court ruling about the government taking land in trust for tribes.

The court’s decision stripped the Interior Department of the authority to take land into trust for tribes that were not federally recognized before the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

Cole has argued that the decision created two classes of tribes. Though the Interior Department has taken land into trust since the Supreme Court decision, Cole’s bill would remove the threat of such actions being challenged in court.

The Obama administration made Cole’s bill a top legislative priority for years, but the legislation never cleared Congress. One year, it came close, only to be killed by former Senate leader Harry Reid, from the gaming state of Nevada.

Cole said the opposition in the past decade has come mainly from the private gaming industry and “states and localities who want to have this ability to extort things.”

“It’s used as a weapon against the tribes.”

Chris Casteel

Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›