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EBCI approves applications to expand trust lands

Located at the southeastern end of Lake Santeetlah, a 32.45-acre tract in Graham County, shown here as the large parcel south of the river, will likely be the site of a new Cherokee cultural and language facility. Graham County GIS image Located at the southeastern end of Lake Santeetlah, a 32.45-acre tract in Graham County, shown here as the large parcel south of the river, will likely be the site of a new Cherokee cultural and language facility. Graham County GIS image

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will ask the federal government to take 38.2 acres in Graham and Swain counties into federal trust following unanimous votes from Tribal Council Thursday, Feb. 1. 

The properties include a 32.45-acre tract in Graham County, located off Tapoco Road just southeast of Lake Santeetlah, and a 5.75-acre tract in the Charleston Township of Swain County, abutting the Qualla Boundary at Birdtown. The Graham County parcel is intended as the future site of a cultural and language facility.

The tribe owns many properties off reservation lands in the same way that the average property owner would — a property goes up for sale, a price is offered, and a contract signed. Having a property taken into trust is something else entirely. Essentially, it means that the federal government holds the land for the benefit of the tribe. The property becomes part of the tribe’s territory, where its own laws take precedence and its government has jurisdiction, not that of the state or county where it is located. It is no longer part of the city or county tax roll and cannot be sold to the highest bidder as is the case with deeded land.

The fee-to-trust process has historically been a long and arduous one, but a federal regulation change adopted in December 2023 is expected to result in a much faster turnaround from the estimated 985 days fee-to-trust application decisions had previously required.

“Now with the new rules, it’s cut down to 120,” said Realty Law Clerk Nelson Lambert. “So we should have all these things back to you fully in the tribe’s name in trust for the tribe within four months.”

That clock will start once the tribe formally submits its application — the resolutions passed last week were just one part of the application package, and the realty office still has more work to do before it can submit a complete application. The legislation also requires a signature from Principal Chief Michell Hicks, who submitted them for approval, to become effective.

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These properties are not the only ones that the EBCI hopes to add to its trust lands. In addition to the two applications voted on last week, there are six other properties for which the tribe plans to submit fee-to-trust applications, Lambert said. Most are smaller acreages and ready for the application process to begin, but a few of them require further discussion.

One such property is known as Little Snowbird Creek. At 794 acres, it’s much larger than any of the other properties the tribe is currently eyeing for fee-to-trust applications. At issue is whether the tribe should seek to have the entire parcel placed into trust or only part of it, as deeded land could offer more flexibility depending on what the tribe wished to do with the property in the future.

Another complicated case is the property currently home to the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, Chota Memorial and Tanasi Memori in Monroe County, Tennessee. For years, the tribe has fought to have the property, much of which is owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, returned to tribal ownership through congressional action. But those efforts have not been successful.

“We’ve got some tie-ups with TVA that we’re going to have to have further discussions with on those,” Lambert told Council.

These efforts follow a pair of high-profile land-to-trust successes that followed decades of frustratingly fruitless efforts. In October 2021, 309 acres at Kituwah in Swain County, known as Mother Town to the Cherokee people, became part of the tribe’s federal trust lands — 25 years after the EBCI had first purchased the deed and seven years after it submitted its initial application to place the land in trust. Soon afterward, the tribe received approval to bring 345 acres at Cooper’s Creek into trust. As for Kituwah, the initial application had been made in 2014.

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