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.

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