A group of advisors to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has proposed the “politically explosive” idea of privatizing tribal lands to get at their rich fossil fuel reserves, Reuters reports. It’s a plan that “could upend more than century of policy designed to preserve Indian tribes on U.S.-owned reservations, which are governed by tribal leaders as sovereign nations.”
The territories in question cover about 2% of the United States, but hold about 20% of the country’s oil and gas as well as “vast” coal reserves, the news agency notes.
“We should take tribal land away from public treatment,” said Member of Congress Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), a member of the Cherokee Nation who co-chairs Trump’s Native American Affairs Coalition. “As long as we can do it without unintended consequences, I think we will have broad support around Indian country.”
Native American leaders “hold a range of opinions on the proper balance between development and conservation,” Reuters reports. But “the proposed path to deregulated drilling—privatizing reservations—could prove even more divisive. Many Native Americans view such efforts as a violation of tribal self-determination and culture.”
“Our spiritual leaders are opposed to the privatization of our lands, which means the commoditization of the nature, water, air we hold sacred,” said Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, a member of both the Navajo and Dakota tribes. “Privatization has been the goal since colonization—to strip Native Nations of their sovereignty.”
Trump advisor Ross Swimmer, an ex-chief of the Cherokee Nation who worked on Indian affairs in the Reagan administration, said one option would be to limit land sales to non-Indian buyers. “It has to be done with an eye toward protecting sovereignty,” he told Reuters.
The Trump transition team “did not provide details of how they propose to allocate ownership of the land or mineral rights—or to ensure they remained under Indian control,” writes correspondent Valerie Volcovici. She adds that “the legal underpinnings for reservations date to treaties made between 1778 and 1871 to end wars between Indigenous Indians and European settlers. Tribal governments decide how land and resources are allotted among tribe members.”