The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe of Death Valley is suing the US Department of the Interior for its failure to sign off on an application take to land into trust for the tribe in Ridgecrest, California.
The Timbisha want to build a casino on the Ridgecrest plot but accuses Associate Deputy Secretary of the Department of Interior James Cason of impeding the application for unspecified political reasons in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
The lawsuit seeks an investigation by the DOI Inspector General into “undue political influence and the failures of the Department to abide by its own policies,” and asks for declaratory and injunctive relief to transfer the land into trust.
The tribe’s members are descendants of the Shoshone people who have lived in what is now known as the Death Valley National Park and neighboring areas of California and Nevada for thousands of years. The Timbisha were federally recognized in 1983 but landless until 2000, when the Shoshone Homeland Act transferred five federal parcels of land into trust for the benefit of the tribe.
The Homeland Act also allowed the DOI to acquire an alternative plot for the tribe, provided it is mutually agreed upon by the tribe and department.
Since the land taken into trust in 2000 was “unsuitable for residential and economic development consistent with the basic needs and rights,” according to the lawsuit, the tribe signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the DOI in January 2017, setting into motion the process to transfer the land.
Since then, not a peep has been heard from the DOI, despite the department’s mandatory duty to transfer the land under the Homeland Act, according to the lawsuit.
In October 2018 tribal representatives contacted Cason’s office to inquire about the progress of the application and were told that Cason did not plan to approve the application until he had heard from US Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-California), whose 23rd Congressional District includes Ridgecrest.
The congressman’s approval was not a requirement of the legal process, the lawsuit asserts. And despite numerous attempts by the tribe to contact Cason and McCarthy the tribe has heard nothing.
“We stand alone in our complaint and filing but we believe that the complaints and lawsuits filed by other tribes [are] indicative of the systematic problems within the Office of the Secretary of the Interior,” said Tribal Chairwoman White Dove Kennedy in a press release.
City Terminates Land Sale
Kennedy is likely referring to accusations that the DOI illegally blocked a Connecticut casino application from the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, allegedly because the department bowed to political pressure from regional competitor MGM Resorts.
In February, a federal judge ruled the two tribes had the right to sue the department. Having since received approval, the tribes have dropped the suit, but former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke remains under investigation by the DOJ over whether he lied to the DOI’s own internal investigators about the tribes’ application, a potential felony.
Amid the delay to the Timbisha application, in December 2018 Ridgecrest City Council voted to terminate the land sale, but the tribe asserts that a municipal services agreement (MSA) signed by both parties is still binding and means it retains the legal right to purchase the plot.
Local media has reported the proposed casino has been a divisive issue among Ridgecrest residents. While some welcome the economic diversification it might bring, a vocal religious contingent believes it will generate vice and crime in the neighborhood.
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