High Country News Features Village Earth’s Work on Pine Ridge

Read about Village Earth’s work on the Pine Ridge Reservation in Aug 31, 2009 edition High Country News, the award winning news magazine that covers the American West’s public lands, water, natural resources, grazing, wilderness, wildlife, logging, politics, communities, growth and other issues now changing the face of the West. From the Northern Rockies to the desert Southwest, from the Great Plains to the West Coast, High Country News’ coverage spans 11 Western states and is the leading source for regional environmental news, analysis and commentary, making it an essential resource for those who care about the West.
The article (above) written by Josh Zaffos, profiles some of the Lakota families that Village Earth has been working with for several years to utilize and protect the remaining lands on the reservation. The article does an excellent job of describing the challenges faced by tribal members and they struggle to utilize their own lands. According to research done by Zaffos, “more than 19,000 members of the Oglala Sioux tribe have claims to more than 203,000 properties.” The article describes some of the history behind this situation.

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.

To read the entire article go to http://www.hcn.org/issues/41.15/a-new-land-grab

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