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Department of Interior clears Tribe for streamlined economic development

HEARTH signingHOLLYWOOD — During a signing ceremony Jan. 8 at Tribal Headquarters in Hollywood, the Seminole Tribe of Florida became the 15th of 566 federally recognized Tribes to be approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior for autonomy over tribal leasing agreements on trust lands.

Before Chairman James E. Billie, other Tribal leaders and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Director Mike Black, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell formally accepted the Tribe’s own regulations that govern land leasing agreements and promote economic growth.

The ceremony fulfilled the purpose of the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Home Ownership Act (HEARTH Act) signed into law by President Barack Obama in July 2012. The HEARTH Act aims to promote tribal self-determination and enables Tribes to exercise sovereignty over tribal lands.

“We have for years controlled a tremendous amount of what happens on tribal land,” Jewell said. “They now control that part of their future, we don’t – which is great.”

In effect, the move bolsters the Tribe’s sovereignty and releases the U.S. government’s involvement in Seminole Tribe of Florida commercial, residential and land investment development. It also enables the Tribe to streamline leasing to non-tribal businesses on reservations and utilize trust land for renewable energy projects.

“You’re on your own,” said Jewell as she handed over the signed documents to Chairman Billie.

Autonomy is granted to Tribes that submit land leasing regulations approved through their own government structure for businesses, residences, agriculture, education, recreation and religion. An environmental impact review is included.

Following review by the BIA, the Tribe’s regulations are then turned over to the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs for further inspection. Finally, after Secretary of the Interior approval, land leases executed by the Tribe are excused from BIA or Department of the Interior approval.

Potential businesses within the tribal community can include shopping malls, restaurants, office space, light industrial uses and resort development – most already present throughout the Seminole Tribe’s six reservations.

But Jewell said turning over responsibility does not absolve the Interior Department of all oversight.

“The Tribe still has to do what is right by their people,” Jewell said.

Chairman Billie said the BIA, under the direction of the Interior Department, has “overshadowed” the interests of the Tribe since the 1800s. In the mid-1950s, when the Tribe was set to be “terminated” by the U.S. government, the Fort Lauderdale-based Friends of the Seminoles helped support the Tribe’s incorporation while the Tribe anchored itself in cattle, tourism and gaming businesses.

“In the modern-day scheme of moneymaking, we had a lot to learn,” Chairman Billie said.

Housing, traditionally in chickee camps, became a formality when the U.S. government wanted families to live in homes with addresses, especially for census data.

But, Chairman Billie said, after the tribal government would provide homesites for home ownership, it took the BIA months or even years to approve steps toward building.

“(The HEARTH Act) gives us the responsibility to make decisions and move quickly,” Chairman Billie said. “No more stumbling blocks.”

Jewell said the Act reinforces the federal government’s obligation to treaties made nationwide with Tribes throughout Indian Country and proves the government’s commitment to tribal sovereignty.

“This is a clear charge to all agencies to step up to treaty agreements and turn over responsibility to Tribes. They know their lands, their people and their needs better than anyone,” Jewell said.

When pressed on just how the Seminole Tribe plans to exercise the renewed land leasing rights, the Chairman declined to explain.

“I don’t want to tell secrets,” Chairman Billie said.