Range Units and the History of Leasing Lands on the Pine Ridge Reservation

Village Earth – Fort Collins, Co 

Today, nearly 60% of the Pine Ridge Reservation is being leased out by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), often times to non-tribal members. Despite the fact that lands allotted to Lakotas have been in the federal leasing system for several generations, over 70% of families on the reservation would like to live on and utilize their allotted lands. According to 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture for American 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.

The reason so few Lakota’s are utilizing Reservation lands today can be traced back to a history of discriminatory policies enacted by Congress just a few years after the signing of the General Allotment Act that opened up Reservation lands to non-Native producers. These policies affected Native Americans nationwide. 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 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.

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