Jessica Cejnar / Thursday, Sept. 19 @ 4:20 p.m. / Tribes

Trinidad Rancheria Chairman Opposes Yurok Lands Bill; Both Tribes Speak Before House Subcommittee


The land within the Blue Creek Watershed will be included in Congressman Huffman's Yurok Lands Act. Photo: Jessica Cejnar

Garth Sundberg Sr.’s testimony opposing a bill that would give the Yurok Tribe a say in land management decisions affecting its ancestral territory drew rebuke from two Congressmen about tribal fighting.

Sundberg, chairman of the Trinidad Rancheria, told the House 

Yurok Tribal Chairman Joseph L. James

Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States on Thursday that the Yurok Lands Act, Bill HR1312, fails to recognize and protect his tribe and others of historic Yurok origin.

“The bill ratifies the Yurok Tribe’s governing documents and claims to all lands within Yurok ancestral territory,” Sundberg said. “The Yurok Tribe is not the same as the Yurok historic people. The Yurok ancestral territory is shared by four tribes of historic Yurok people and does not belong to the Yurok Tribe.”

Sponsored by Congressman Jared Huffman, who represents Humboldt and Del Norte counties, the Yurok Lands Act transfers 1,229 acres of U.S. Forest Service land, called the Yurok Experimental Forest, into trust for the tribe.

The bill would also expand the reservation’s eastern boundary to include 60,000 acres of land the tribe purchased in the last 10 years, including the Blue Creek watershed, Yurok Tribal Chairman Joseph James told the subcommittee Thursday.

The Yurok Lands Act also affirms the tribe’s governing documents to strengthen its governance and sovereignty, however it does not alter the rights of neighboring tribes and local interests, according to a Yurok Tribe news release.

“Our lands are key to the Yurok Tribe’s future,” James said. “This bill is the result of hard work and compromise with our neighbors to help build a stronger future.”

In his testimony before the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, Huffman said the Yurok Lands Act would also designate Bald Hills Road as the Yurok Scenic Byway. It would also allow the tribe to make infrastructure improvements and have access to federal grants, Huffman said.

“The reservation is surrounded by federal land,” he said. “Most of the Yurok Tribe’s ancestral territory is currently managed by federal land managers; water, salmon and forests are impacted by federal agency decisions.”

According to Huffman, the Karuk Tribe, Elk Valley Rancheria, Save the Redwoods League and Green Diamond Resource Company support the bill. He noted that while the bill can create complications, he is committed to maintaining an open dialog with other tribes and stakeholders to listen to all interests and concerns.

James said Huffman’s bill provides a number of provisions to address a disparity that resulted from the 1988 Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act. That action granted 5,000 acres to the Yurok Tribe and 90,000 acres to the Hoopa Tribe, James said. The tribe received “little land, no infrastructure, equipment and no money to help with the day-to-day operations of the people on our reservation,” he said.

“We got less land, we got no electricity, no infrastructure, we’ve been building our reservation through grants we receive from the federal government,” James said. “A couple years ago Jack Norton Elementary School, our K8 school, was running on generators. Now it has electricity. We’ve struggled since the split of the Hoopa Settlement Act. This will bring us whole. In full circle with our people and with Congress.”

Sundberg, however, noted that four tribes share Yurok ancestral territory. He said if the ancestral territory referenced in the Yurok Lands Act “stuck to their reservation,” the Trinidad Rancheria would be fine with the bill.

Sundberg also noted that the Yurok Tribe is opposing the Trinidad Rancheria’s efforts to put its land in trust.

“Economically it hurts us,” he said. “It costs a lot of money. We’re a small tribe. The problem of this bill when you ratify the Constitution is the definition of ancestral land.”

Sundberg’s testimony prompted Republican congressman, Paul Cook, who represents California’s 8th congressional district, which includes Inyo, Mono and most of San Bernardino counties, to ask Sundberg if the bill needs more clarification or if it’s “a boundary issue on a map.”

“I’ve been representing a variety of tribes, mostly in Southern California, it’s always disturbing when tribes are fighting tribes,” Cook said. “I always try to seek peace because too often it’s (fighting) is to the detriment of the tribes involved and it hurts.”

Sundberg argued that the bill would affect the Big Lagoon and Resighini rancherias in addition to the Trinidad Rancheria.

Huffman noted that while the Yurok Tribe’s constitution references an area of ancestral territory beyond their reservation boundaries, Sundberg’s concern is that if Congress ratifies the tribe’s constitution it would give it a broader claim of ancestral territory that could be used against the Trinidad Rancheria and other tribes.

But, Huffman said, the bill has a “savings clause” indicating that the Yurok Tribe wouldn’t have additional rights at the expense of another tribe.

“I thought that had taken away any possibility of this being used against neighboring tribes to gain some kind of a legal advantage,” Huffman said. “The Yurok feel the savings clause is clear and ought to dispel concern and the Trinidad feel like there still might be some way in which a Congressional act that ratifies the Constitution could come back to haunt them in ways we can’t even anticipate.”

Huffman noted that while the tribes are at an impasse over the Yurok Lands Act, he hopes both entities will be able to continue to communicate as the bill goes through the legislative process.

Alaska Congressman Don Young asked James if the Yurok Tribe attempted to compromise with the Trinidad Rancheria and other tribes.

James replied that he discussed a potential memorandum of understanding or agreement with Sundberg in 2018. He noted that the Yurok Lands Act includes a section that states the bill wouldn’t be a delegation of federal authority over land not within the revised Yurok Reservation.

Sundberg said the meeting he had with James “went nowhere.”

Young, however, echoed Cook’s statement about the point of contention between the two tribes.

“You oughta work this out,” Young said to Sundberg and James. “I don’t know why you’re fighting so hard.”

To Huffman, Young said the dispute between the two tribes should be solved “jointly for both of them.”


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