Archives for October 2009

USDA Census Reveals Non-Native Producers Dominate on Most Native American Reservations

By David Bartecchi and Courtney Hunter
Fort Collins, CO (Village Earth) 10/23/09 — Recently released 2007 Agricultural data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for Native American Reservations reveal that non-native agricultural producers dominate on most Native American Reservations in the United States. This is according to a study conducted by Village Earth, a Fort Collins based not-for-profit organization that works on indigenous land use issues on Native American Reservations in the United States and around the world. 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 USDA has conducted its quinquennial Census of Agriculture for every county in the United States since 1840 but it was not until 2007 when it began collecting this agricultural data for Native American Reservations. While Village Earth recognizes that this data-set is not complete, representing only 73 of the 388 Native American Reservations in the U.S., the results are consistent with data collected by a study from Colorado State University and with its experience working with Native producers on the Pine Ridge Reservation in their efforts to utilize their own lands.

The unequal land-use patterns seen on reservations today is a direct outcome of discriminatory lending practices, land fractionation and specifically, Federal policies over the last century that have excluded native land owners from the ability to utilize their lands while at the same time opening it up to non-native farmers and ranchers. Discriminatory lending practices, as argued in court cases such as the pending Keepseagle vs. Vilsack, claim that Native Americans have been denied roughly 3 billion in credit.  Another significant obstacle is the high degree of fractionation of Reservation lands caused by the General Allotment Act (GAA) of 1887. Over a century of unplanned inheritance under the GAA has created a situation where reservation lands have become severely fractionated. Today, for a Native land owner to consolidate and utilize his or her allotted lands they may have to get the signed approval of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of separate land owners. As a result, most Indian land owners have few options besides leasing their lands out as part of the Federal Government’s leasing program. Additionally, historical and racially-based policies by the Federal government have been designed to exclude Native American farmers and ranchers from utilizing their own lands, opening them up to non-natives for a fraction of their far market value.

The leasing of Indian Lands by the Federal Government dates back the the the Act of February 28, 1891 which amended the General Allotment Act to give the Secretary of the Interior the power to determine whether an Indian allottee had the “mental or physically qualifications” to enable him to cultivate his allotment. In such cases, the Superintendent was authorized to lease Indian lands to non-tribal members. In 1894, the annual Indian Appropriation Act increased the agricultural lease term to 5 years, 10 years for business and mining leases, and permitted forced leases for allottees who “suffered” from “inability to work their land.” Clearly designed to alienate lands from Native Americans, this act dramatically increased the number of leases issued across the country. For the Pine Ridge Reservation the practice was so widespread, that in a 1915 Government report, it was noted that over 56% of the adult males on the reservation were considered incapable of managing their lands and thus they were forcefully leased out. In 1920 the Government Superintendent for Pine Ridge wrote, “It has been my policy to insist upon the utilization of all these lands and the grass growing upon it and this has restricted members of the tribe owning stock to their own allotments, and such land adjoining that they have leased.” Not only were a great number of Native Americans denied the ability to utilize their allotted lands, many did not even receive the lease income collected by the Federal Government. Today, it is estimated that Native Americans are owed upwards of 47 billion dollars by the Federal Government for 120 years of oil, timber, agriculture, grazing and mining leases (See Cobell vs. Salazar).

According to Village Earth, the disparity in land use on Native American Reservations will only worsen with each new generation until Native Americans are given a fair chance at accessing the credit and other forms assistance available to non-natives. Additionally, the Government should honor its obligation as trustee and pay the over 47 billion dollars in revenue it has received for the leasing of Native American lands over the last 120 years. Lastly, the Department of Interior should place special emphasis on repairing the fractionation problem created by the General Allotment Act by providing information and support to individual allottees to consolidate and utilize their lands. In particular, speeding up the appraisal and survey process for which they are responsible.

A NOTE OF CAUTION REGARDING PARTITIONING (privatization) INDIGENOUS COMMUNAL LANDS – THE EXAMPLE OF THE PINE RIDGE RESERVATION, USA.

A few of us, at Village Earth, recently watched Hernand de Soto’s video, titled “El misterio del capital de los indígenas amazónicas.” Village Earth is a non-profit organization that is currently working with Shipibo communities in the Ucayali River Basin and, consequently, we are interested in any proposals that might improve the livelihoods of indigenous peoples in the region. In this case We feel a certain urgency to respond given that de Soto uses examples of Native Americans from the U.S. state of Alaska. While we are not intimately familiar with the situation of Alaskan indigenous peoples, we have been working with the Lakota people from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (in South Dakota) for more than ten years. And given that indigenous territory is such an important issue in Peru, we are not sure that the Alaskan case is the most appropriate example. Whatever the case, we would like to share our perspective on the experience of partitioning, essentially privatizing, land on Pine Ridge Reservation.
First, a few important facts about indigenous peoples (Native Americans) in the US:
Approximately 24.5 percent of Native Americans, an estimated 800,000 people, are living in poverty at or below the national poverty level in the United States. Despite this dire economic situation, Native Americans own a great deal of land, approximately 112,637.29 square miles, second only to the federal government.
Yet, many Native American’s have not been able to fully benefit from these vast resourcesbecause of various contradictions in the Federal land tenure policy for Indian lands. In particular, the obstacles created by the General Allotment Act (GAA) signed in to law in 1887, which along with the Burke Act in 1906, led to a “de facto” privatization of indigenous lands. Most importantly, these laws broke apart communally owned lands into individual parcels, which enabled private non-indigenous interests to control the vast majority (and most productive) lands on Pine Ridge Reservation. Today, the Lakota are still struggling to get these lands back in their control
Village Earth became intimately aware of the impacts of Partitioning (privatizing) Reservation lands through our work with families on the Pine Ridge Reservation who are struggling today to reverse the effects of a policy implemented over 120 years ago. Today, nearly 60% of lands allotted to Lakota families during 1887 General Allotment Act are being leased out, often to non-tribal private interests for a fraction of the fair market value. This has had a devastating impact on the people on Pine Ridge. According to the USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture for U.S. Indian Reservations, the market value of agriculture commodities produced on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 2007 totaled $54,541,000. Yet, less than 1/3 ($17,835,000) of that income went to Native American producers. How did the GAA contribute to this dire situation today?
After the period of European settlement in North America between 1492-1887, Native Americans were left with reservations consisting of only 150 million acres. Recognized through treaties as sovereign nations, these lands were largely unpartitioned and communally managed, a practice considered by the U.S. Government to be a non-productive and irrational use of resources. The Government’s solution was the General Allotment Act (GAA) of 1887, also known as the Dawes Severalty Act. The act partitioned reservation lands into 160 acre parcels for each head of family, 80 acre parcels to orphans, and 40 acres parcels to each child. After all the allotments were issued, the remaining reservation lands in the West was transferred to the Government who then made it available to white settlers free of charge as part of the Homestead Act. This amounted to a loss of over 60,000,000 acres, nearly 2/3rds of all Indian lands. Beyond the significant loss of lands, the GAA also created several challenges for the use and inheritance of the remaining lands that would have profound implications for future generations of Native Americans.
  • It broke apart communally managed lands into individually owned parcels, destroying the ability of many communities to be self sufficient on already limited and marginal lands.
  • It disrupted traditional residency patterns, forcing people to live on allotments sometimes far from their relatives, eroding traditional kinship practices across many reservations.
  • It destroyed communal control of lands, making it easier for private and government interests to gain access to the vast coal, oil, natural gas, agricultural, and grazing resources on Native American Reservations.
  • The GAA  never established an adequate system for how lands would be transfered from generatio
    n to generation. Since the practice of creating a Last Will and Testament before death was not common and in some cases was outright offensive to the traditional inheritance practices of some Native American cultures, these lands passed from one generation to the next without clear divisions of who owned what. Today, lands have become so fractionated that it is common to have several hundred or even thousands of landowners on one piece land. This has created a severe obstacle today for individuals and families wanting to utilize their lands as they need to get permission from the other land owners on decisions related to the land. With limited resources to deal with this situation, the only option for most families is to lease their undivided fractionated lands out – often times to non-natives.
  • Forced Fee Patenting, introduced with the 1906 Burke Act, amended the GAA to give the secretary of the interior the power to issue Indian Allottees determined to be “competent,” fee patents making their lands subject to taxation and sale. In other words, the government privatized indigenous lands. It as widely understood by government officials that lands, privatized under the Burke Act, would soon be liquidated. In 1922 the Government superintendent of the Pine Ride Reservation noted: “Careful observation of the results on the Pine Ridge reservation show that less than five percent of the Indians who receive patents retain their lands.” According to the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, between 1997 and 1934, nearly 27,000,000 acres of land was lost as a result of privatization.
  • Indian Allottees determined to be “incompetent, ” under the Burke Act, were not allowed to live on or utilize their allotment, instead it was leased out by the Federal Government to oil, timber, mineral, and grazing interests. In many cases, Allottees did not even receive the income from the leases. This practice was so widespread that a 1915 Department of the Interior, Annual Report of the Pine Ridge Agency, nearly 56% of its residents were deemed “incompetent.” The longterm affect of this practice was how it physically and psychologically alienated Indian Allottees from their lands. For example many families today own land but have never lived on it, used it, or oftentimes, even know where it is located.
The various economic, social, and cultural disruptions created by the these acts over the last century is an underlying cause of poverty on many Native American Reservations today, negatively impacting housing construction, economic development, residency patterns, family and community cohesion, ecological health, cultural self-determination, and political sovereignty.
While we understand that this case, just as De Soto’s Alaskan case, is different in many ways than the case of indigenous peoples from the Peruvian Amazon, we belief that privatizing indigenous lands is dangerous. Indigenous people from Pine Ridge reservation are still struggling from political decisions that led essentially to the de-collectivization of their lands. It is also interesting to note that, in the case of Pine Ridge, as other Native American Reservations in the US, indigenous peoples have NOT been able to keep those resources (mineral, oil, etc.) that the government or private interests find profitable.