Putting Reservation Land Back in Indian Hands

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Much “Indian land” is actually out of the control of Indians. Non-Indians own more than 65 percent of the reservation land in the United States, reports Native Peoples magazine. Moreover, many of the Indians that do own land possess ridiculously tiny “fractionated” parcels made possible by the General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act, which split up land and put it into a government trust.

A Minnesota-based organization called the Indian Land Tenure Foundation is working to change this situation and to put more land back into Indian hands. Executive director Chris Stainbrook tells Native Peoples that a large part of the group’s mission is raising awareness:

“Most curriculums in schools today stress the old story, that the treaties were made and reservations created, and that’s that. Most people don’t realize that we’ve lost more than half of the original 148 million acres of land that were inside those initial reservation boundaries. What has come along with that loss of land is the loss of a land-based culture, and also the economic opportunities those lands would have provided for Indian people. Add up that cumulative monetary loss over the past 130 years and it is staggering. And even the land we still have–roughly 55 million acres in trust status–most of that is highly fractionated, which greatly reduces its profitability. Plus, we are still losing land every year.”

A recent court settlement may help clean up fractionation, Alleen Brown reports in In These Times. President Obama in late 2010 signed off on a $3.4 billion settlement in the case Cobell v. Salazar, ending a 14-year-old class-action suit filed by Indians against the U.S. government for tribal land mismanagement. Checks will be going out soon, and settlement funds disbursed through the Indian Land Consolidation Program will be directed toward consolidating land into usable portions–but Brown notes that “the settlement doesn’t put an end to fractionation itself” nor to “the federal government’s paternalistic practice of holding tens of millions of reservation acres in trust.”

In the meantime, some Indian activists have a suggestion for Occupy Wall Street: Let’s decolonize it instead. 

Sources: Native Peoples, In These Times, Indian Country Today

Image by McD22, licensed under Creative Commons.

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