Tribal Government & News

Kennedy testifies before Congress, seeking solution to 26-year-old mistake

02.05.2020 Dean Rhodes Tribal Council, Federal government
Grand Ronde Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy testified before the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples on Wednesday, Feb. 5, seeking to correct a 26-year-old mistake written into the Grand Ronde Reservation Act that prohibits further Tribal land claims within the entire state of Oregon. Tribal Attorney Rob Greene, back, accompanied Kennedy on the trip to Washington, D.C. (Smoke Signals screen capture)

By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy testified before the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples on Wednesday, Feb. 5, seeking to correct a mistake written into the Grand Ronde Reservation Act in 1994.

According to Kennedy’s prepared testimony, the Bureau of Land Management discovered a survey error on the Grand Ronde Reservation that dates back to 1871. The error was discovered after passage of the Grand Ronde Reservation Act in 1988 that returned 9,811 acres to the Tribe.

Surveyor David Thompson had incorrectly surveyed the eastern boundary of the Reservation, leaving 84 acres unsurveyed. The land also was excluded from a 1904 sale of unallotted lands within the Reservation and Grand Ronde was not compensated for it.

Until the error was discovered, BLM treated the land as Oregon and California Railroad Grant Lands and permitted private companies to harvest timber on the acreage.

After being informed of the survey error, the Tribe determined the parcel, called the Thompson Strip, was unmanageable because of narrow boundaries and divided ownership interests. The Tribe agreed to accept a 240-acre parcel of grant lands adjacent to the Grand Ronde Reservation in exchange and surrender its claims to the Thompson Strip.

However, the Department of the Interior in 1994 “developed broad language that relinquished any future claims of this type within the state of Oregon” by the Grand Ronde Tribe.

“In agreeing to this land exchange in 1994, the intent of the parties was for Grand Ronde to relinquish its rights only to the Thompson Strip,” Kennedy said. “There was no intention by BLM or BIA officials involved in this land swap to extinguish the Tribe’s land claim rights for the entire state of Oregon.”

Kennedy said the Tribe only discovered the issue recently while working on a different amendment to the Reservation Act.

“While we are not aware of any specific new survey errors or land claim issues, we do want to be proactive about ensuring that the Tribe has the right to be compensated should another problem arise,” she said. “As we re-acquire lands within our Reservation boundaries, my staff tells me that we frequently find small survey inconsistencies when title searches are conducted. We want to be prepared if and when additional errors are uncovered.”

House Resolution 4888, sponsored by Oregon Reps. Kurt Schrader, Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio and Earl Blumenauer, would replace the phrase “state of Oregon” with the phrase “84 acres known as the Thompson Strip” in the Grand Ronde Reservation Act.

A companion bill in the U.S. Senate is supported by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

“On behalf of Grand Ronde, we hope the members of the Committee on Natural Resources will support this legislation and vote it favorably out of committee,” Kennedy said.

Darryle LaCounte, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior, testified that the bureau suggests further investigation be conducted to see if HR 4888 is an appropriate solution.

However, under questioning by Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, LaCounte said that he did not know that internal BLM memos from 1994 obtained by the Tribe through a Freedom of Information Act stated that the original intention was to only eliminate Tribal claims to the Thompson Strip and not throughout the state.

“The bill extinguishes all claims established by the Executive Order of June 30, 1857,” one BLM memo stated in 1994. “This bill should only apply to the Thompson Strip because there may be other similar problems that we are not aware of at this time.”

In her testimony, Kennedy was critical of the Department of the Interior for not adhering to its trust responsibilities and looking out for the best interests of the Grand Ronde Tribe in 1994.

Under questioning from Gallego, she also said that Tribal Council members at the time were not aware of the broad language that was amended into the Reservation Act.

Schrader, in his written testimony supporting the bill, said it would “restore historical parity by reinstating Grand Ronde’s ability to pursue claims to land within the state of Oregon that are based on their original Grand Ronde Reservation. No other Tribe in Oregon has had their land claim rights extinguished for the entire state.”

Tribal Attorney Rob Greene accompanied Kennedy on the trip to Washington, D.C.