Custer Was Sioux’d, Now Obama Settles

Custer Was Sioux’d, Now Obama Settles

HCNCOVERJUL09I spent some time reporting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota this past year, talking with Oglala Lakota tribal members about the complex land ownership patterns and rules on the reservation. Between spotting buffalo hooves on the roofs of homes (to dry them, of course), I saw this great bumper sticker on the side of a conversion van, which has gained a timely double meaning, as government-Indian relations have gone from military to litigious: Custer Was Sioux’d.

Government intervention on reservations across the country dates back more than a century, when policies unwittingly entangled many families’ land ownership so that the default and simplest form of management is through federal leasing programs. The short-sighted decisions of the time contributed to initiation of a landmark class-action lawsuit, Cobell v. Salazar, that accussed the federal government of mismanaging billions of dollars in royalties and other leases. First filed in 1996 and passed on by both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, President Obama and Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar announced a settlement this week. The government has agreed to pay $3.4 billion to Native Americans, although officials don’t know how many individuals qualify for the payout because lease records are in a state of disarray.

On Pine Ridge, some families are trying to sort through their relatives’ fractionated land claims (divided among heirs of the original owner) and remove land from the government program that leases the parcels for cattle grazing. Instead of getting a few hundred dollars to allow a non-Indian to raise cows, these families are returning bison to the land, taking part in a buffalo meat co-operative and, more importantly, reestablishing a major component of their traditional culture.

As part of my reporting, I was fortunate enough to visit with a family raising a small herd of bison and to witness a family ceremony based around a buffalo kill. As part of the prayers of thanks to the animal for giving its life, each member of the family dipped a finger into a cup of blood collected from the dying buffalo’s throat. It didn’t taste much different than a scrape on my knee, although it lingered on my tongue for hours.

My story, “A new land grab,” appeared in the August 31 issue of High Country News, and it was recently liberated from behind the paper’s subscribers-only firewall. I also recorded an audio interview with associate editor Marty Durlin, talking about my reporting experiences.

In the article, I give a quick review of the history of land tenure on reservations:

Under the Dawes Act of 1887, the federal government doled out 160 acres of land to the head of each Indian family at Pine Ridge and other reservations. Congress could sell off any un-allotted lands, while the Bureau of Indian Affairs would maintain a tribal trust fund of revenues from mineral, oil, timber and grazing leases. (That trust fund is the subject of the ongoing lawsuit brought by Blackfeet tribal member Elouise Cobell in 1996.)

Then, in 1906, Congress passed the Burke Act, which allowed the BIA to measure Native Americans’ “competence” to handle their homestead lands, based on ancestry, cultural assimilation — even the length of a person’s hair. The assessments at Pine Ridge underscored official prejudice: By 1915, government agents had classified 56 percent of the Oglala Lakota living on the reservation as “incompetent,” and 700,000 additional acres were sold off before the practice ceased in 1934. Other parcels allotted to “incompetent” Indians were shifted into the leasing system, which has served mostly non-Native ranchers. But “competent” Indians didn’t make out much better, since they were forced to pay taxes on their allotments. Ninety-five percent of these lands were eventually sold to non-Natives for a fraction of their real value.

And the allotment system had lasting cultural impact: By chopping up the land base, it effectively ended communal hunting practices. As the original allottees died and their children inherited the land, parcels were fractionated among dozens — sometimes hundreds — of heirs.

People who have followed the Cobell lawsuit consider the settlement a major step forward in relationships between the federal government and tribes, which have been characterized by distrust for centuries. The settlement includes provisions to create a $1.4 billion Accounting/Trust Administration Fund and a $2 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund, both of which should help alleviate some administrative shortcomings. But the problems over Indian land tenure remain a massive headache that needs to be treated with solutions that increase Indians’ control of their own lands.

For instance, the land-consolidation fund intends to eliminate fractionated land claims through government acquisition. The program could reduce some family’s problems, but it will reduce the land base owned by tribe members and not do anything to address land tenure and use concerns.

Following the recent release of  U.S. Department of Agriculture data on farming on reservations, the nonprofit group Village Earth, based in Fort Collins and active on these issues at Pine Ridge,  crunched the numbers to reveal an alarming disparity:

According to Village Earth’s study of the USDA data, in total numbers, Native Americans represent only 1.6% of the farmers and ranchers operating on Reservation lands. Today, for most Native American Reservations in the United States, more than two-thirds of the farms and ranches are controlled by non-natives. As might be expected, this disparity in land use has had a dramatic impact on the ability of Native Americans to fully benefit from their natural resources. Statistics on income reveal that the total value of agricultural commodities produced on Native American Reservations in 2007 totaled over $2.1 Billion dollars, yet, only 16% of that income went to Native American farmers and ranchers.

The new funds could move the government beyond its standard practices. But based on the past, the tribes and officials will have to remain wary that the money isn’t just churned into the bureaucratic boondoggle that led to the present situation.

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