Opinion: Taxing California tribal lands after they’re returned adds insult to injury

Yurok Tribe Highway Welcome Sign
A Yurok Tribe welcome sign on State Route 96 in Weitchpec in far northern California. Photo courtesy of Caltrans

News feeds are awash with pros and cons over whether federally recognized tribes and licensed gaming companies should be allowed to offer online sports betting in California. Instead, #LandBack should be trending.

The #LandBack movement seeks to return land to tribal nations. These lands, with few exceptions, are subject to state property taxes. The Legislature should amend California’s tax codes to exempt such land from property taxes. This would prevent the exploitation of indigenous peoples that has been part of the nation’s history since before its independence.

State land tax was used to acquire native land. The Federal Government of 1887 Dawes Law authorized the severance of native-held land into parcels held in trust and exempt from state property taxes, for a specified period. When the exemption ended, many natives were unable to pay and confiscated their land from the state, which then resold it.

Taxpayers may worry that eliminating property taxes will reduce the revenue needed to support schools, roads and other public services. A system already exists to compensate for the loss of revenue from the local property tax which has provided $10.8 billion to the States since 1977.

Under this system, the federal government makes payments in lieu of taxes for tax-exempt federal lands, including reserves. Congress could expand payments to automatically include land returned to Indigenous nations. This would eliminate the threat of repeated loss of land for inability or non-payment of state property taxes, while securing revenue for local governments to provide services.

In 2022, $549.4 million was distributed to 1,900 local governments to offset non-taxable federal lands in their jurisdictions. Revenues generated by commercial activities on public lands fund these payments, eliminating the need for additional congressional appropriations.

The #LandBack movement is gaining momentum and has already seen land returned to tribes. Approximately 14,000 acres have been rendered to the native peoples of California since 1995, when 3,900 acres were returned to the Sinkyone Wilderness Intertribal Council in Mendocino County.

The town of Eureka has made international headlines returning all the plots it owned on Tuluwat Island to the Wiyot tribe in two land transfers in 2004 and 2019.

Land transfers had continued, the most recent taking place in May, when 40 acres above the North Fork of the American River in Placer County were returned to Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe.

And, in a first for the San Francisco Bay Area, Oakland will create a five acre easement within city limits at Sequoia Point for Lisjan Nation Confederate Villages and Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. The city will retain title, with the easement granting the tribe the exclusive right to use the property for ceremonial and cultural purposes.

Additional land returns could take place across the state with the transfer of surplus state-owned land to Indigenous nations to meet the governor’s 2020 goal. Statement of Administrative Policy on Native American Ancestral Lands.

Mention of property taxes is absent from speeches and press releases celebrating land restitution. Failure to address this important issue renders those moments of well-being fleeting and forces Indigenous Nations to pay for the right to care for the lands they have called home since time immemorial.

Kerri J. Malloy is Assistant Professor of Global Humanities at San Jose State University. He is a registered member of the Yurok tribe. The author wrote this for Cal Mattersa public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California Capitol works and why it matters.

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