Tax would target sale of tribal land

TULALIP — It could soon become more expensive for Tulalip tribal members who want to develop reservation land and sell it to non-Indians.

The Tulalip tribal government is working on a new tribal code that aims to keep American Indians from selling tribal land to non- Indians. Tribal leaders are staying mum on the exact proposal, but one possibility is adding a tax when an Indian sells to a non-Indian.

“We believe the reservation is sacred and we wanted to make sure that not as much land goes out of trust status,” Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon said, referring to the federal government’s in-trust protection of Indian land.

The Tulalip Grassroots Committee, an organization of tribal members, last year proposed a 17 percent tax on the land value on real estate transactions to discourage Indians from selling land out of tribal hands.

It can take years for the federal government to approve land to be transferred into protected trust status, said Les Parks, who heads the Grassroots Committee. Tribes, as sovereign nations, preside as governments over trust land, which is not taxed.

When an Indian sells trust land to a non-Indian, the trust status of that land is lost.

The committee’s proposal was approved by a majority of tribal members last year. Since then, Sheldon and other tribal leaders have grappled with how to enact the new law without creating a legal quagmire.

“We have come up with wording that we think reflects the spirit and intent of the act,” Sheldon said.

Tribal leaders may present the final proposal to tribal members at a meeting scheduled for March, Sheldon said. He declined to offer details of the new code before presenting it at the meeting.

The change comes amid negotiations between Snohomish County and tribal land use planners over who has jurisdiction on non-Indian land within the reservation’s historic boundaries.

Non-Indians who live on private land within the reservation’s boundaries have been getting building permits from the tribal planning office, instead of the county planning department, according to tribal planning officials. Tribal leaders say those landowners are doing the right thing, but county leaders say the county has jurisdiction over nontribal land within the reservation.

“The tribe has asserted that they have control of all the land within the historic (reservation) boundaries,” county Planning Director Craig Ladiser said. “We recognize that they sure should have influence over those lands, but it’s the level of influence we’re talking about.”

Both sides have been meeting for about three years in an effort to come to an agreement, Ladiser said.

The Tulalip Indian Reservation is a checkerboard. About 40 percent of the historic 22,000-acre reservation is private, non-Indian land, Sheldon said. Much of the private land has been passed down through non-Indian families for generations, since the federal government split the reservation up into lots in an effort to integrate Indians into white society.

The tribal government has in recent years purchased back countless acres as it comes up for sale.

“We believe the reservation is sacred,” Sheldon said.

Tulalip isn’t the first tribe to take action to curb the sale of land out of Indian hands.

“Some tribes have proposed disenrolling tribal members when they do that,” said Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

In Indian Country, disenrollment is akin to banishment. It’s not a step that’s ever taken lightly, but the fact that tribal leaders anywhere are considering it shows how serious they are about keeping land in trust, Stainbrook said. Tulalip tribal leaders have never said they are considering that step.

“Trust land can’t be sold to a non-Indian,” he said. “It can be sold to another Indian and it can be sold to the tribe and stay in trust, but it can’t be sold to a non-Indian and stay in trust. There’s a conversion from trust land to fee-simple land that happens, sometimes within moments.”

It can take up to 10 years for an application for land to be transferred from fee-simple status (absolute ownership) into trust status, Stainbrook said.

The Tulalip Tribes have bought back countless acres of land from non-Indians in recent years, but tribal leaders know it’s unlikely they will own everything anytime soon. Until that happens, they’re claiming jurisdiction over all the land within the historic reservation boundary.

Ladiser said the county and the tribal government aren’t close to reaching an agreement over jurisdiction.

“We’re just not there yet,” he said.

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