TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Members of the United Keetoowah Band celebrated Thursday afternoon after they learned the 10th Circuit Court had reversed a previous decision, thus allowing 76 acres of land to be placed into trust.
“This has been quite an ordeal and undertaking,” Chief Joe Bunch told a room full of employees and UKB citizens. “It will make it a better place for all Keetoowah.”
The decision, published Sept. 5, states in part: “We reverse the district court’s order holding that the 2011 decision approving the UKB’s land-into-trust application was arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and otherwise not in accordance with law.”
In May 2017, a ruling from the Eastern District of Oklahoma blocked and overturned a May 2011 decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to allow the UKB to take into trust a 76-acre parcel of fee land northwest of Willis Road. That site is home to the UKB's dance grounds, elder center, museum and several government offices, and was purchased by the UKB in 2000.
In August 2012, the Cherokee Nation had sued the U.S. Department of the Interior, of which the BIA is a part, because of its decision to allow the UKB to have trust land within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. The lower court determined the BIA had to first get written approval from Cherokee Nation before allowing the UKB to put land into trust within the former reservation boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. The BIA consulted with the larger tribe before approving the trust application, but did not receive its consent.
The decision from the Circuit Court states: “We hold that (1) the BIA need not consider the definition of ‘Indian’ under the IRA when taking land into trust pursuant to OIWA; (2) Nation consent is not required for the BIA to take the Subject Parcel into trust; and (3) the BIA’s consideration of the section 151.10 regulatory factors was not arbitrary and capricious.”
Bunch said the Keetoowah can no longer be called foul names or labeled a “dormant tribe" or “error in registry.”
“Collectively, what it means is, we’re like all federally recognized tribes with land in trust,” he said. “This is just a springboard, a mechanism that moves us forward. We’re very excited.”
Having land in trust would allow the UKB to apply for more federal grants, which Bunch said would improve the tribe, its health care, and education.
Former UKB Chief John Hair, 87, was present at the announcement and spoke to the crowd.
“My soul is at ease. There’s better things coming,” said Hair, who was chief from 1983-1991. “Carry on. We still have work to do. It should be easier from this point on. I’m glad I’m here to hear this.”
Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill said that officials with her tribe are still reviewing the decision and 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,” said Hill.
Grant Crawford contributed to this story.
Gourd writes for Tahlequah Daily Press, a CNHI News Service publication.