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What is a tribe Without Any land?

Buffalo at home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near east Glacier Park.

Buffalo at home on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near east Glacier Park.

Jack Wallis / Courtesy Indian Land Tenure Foundation

More than 65 percent of reservation land in the U.S. is currently owned and controlled by non-Indians. On some reservations, this number is closer to 90 percent--even though, when they were established, reservation lands were generally guaranteed for the exclusive use and occupation of Indian people. This division and alienation of Indian land and assets has had devastating consequences for Indian people.
Fortunately for tribes, there is a nonprofit organization, the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, that is working exclusively and effectively to stem these losses and return lands to Indian hands.

"A lot of the work we are doing is focused on education," noted the group's executive director, Cris Stainbrook (Oglala Lakota), in a recent interview. "These efforts probably constitute 60 to 70 percent of what we've done over the first 10 years of our existence--getting accurate information of Indian land status issues to the general public and to the Indian community. 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."

The General Allotment Act of 1887, he explained, "allowed for a unilateral taking of tribal land by the federal government." The lands went from tribal ownership to federal trust status (though the act was not applied to all reservations nationwide). The federal government then determined how many acres each tribal member could be expected to put to "productive use" as farmland or grazing lands (based on manual working methods of the time), and tribal members were given ownership of these lands. The rest of the land (often a majority of the total land base originally included in treaties) was classified as "surplus" and put up for sale to non-Natives. Over the years, many Indian families sold their allotment land, or split it into so many small plots that today the land is almost unusable. Other lands were lost to tax foreclosure sales.

But the Indian Land Tenure Foundation believes "knowledge becomes power." To this end, it conducts meetings
across the country, working with tribes to recover lost lands, to consolidate split properties, and to stop further erosion of the tribal land base. It produces an excellent newsletter, "Message Runner," that is posted online and mailed to anyone interested in the subject. The most current issue "is about understanding the federal forms that each landowner gets over time, from their trust status report to forms needed for sale or transfer of trust land," said Stainbrook.

The foundation's funding comes from grants, fees and donations to cover the lean but effective staff of seven fulltime employees. The group held its first national conference this spring and hopes to do so again in 2012, to allow tribal land managers to meet face-to-face to discuss common problems and solutions.

It is a topic that receives little media attention, Stainbrook concluded. "Most of their attention in the area of Indian land issues is devoted to 'reservation shopping' controversies involving land purchases for casino construction projects. But very few of the tribal land acquisition efforts are directed toward this objective. Most land is targeted for agriculture or cultural uses, or environmental protection."
For additional information on the important functions of the hard-working Indian Land Tenure Foundation, call 651/766-8999 or visit www.iltf.org.

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