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.

Senate holds up Cobell Settlement Once Again!

Senate will approve 700 Billion to Wall Street in a matter of weeks but when it comes to settling-up with Native Americans for less than 7% of the money owed to them for oil, gas, timber and grazing leases, try 14 years.

READ BELOW

Statement by Elouise Cobell
Lead Plaintiff
Cobell vs Salazar
BROWNING, Mont., July 23 — On July 1, 2010, the House of Representatives passed HR4899 – Disaster/War Supplemental Appropriations. It included legislation to approve the Cobell v. Salazar individual Indian trust settlement.  Late last night, however, the Senate stripped from HR 4899 all domestic spending provisions, including our settlement legislation, notwithstanding that the domestic spending provisions are fully paid for.  The stripped version of the bill returns to the House for further consideration.  This is the second time in two months that the Senate has failed to act on settlement legislation although it is fully paid-for and had been expected to pass if put to a vote.
As a result of Senate action, legislative approval of our settlement, once again, is in the capable hands of House leadership, which steadfastly has supported us since settlement with the government was reached on December 7, 2009.   We have great confidence in Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Hoyer and believe that they will continue to ensure that 500,000 individual Indians finally are provided justice that is long overdue.  We are depending on them.

Reflections on the Cobell Settlement and Indian Land Consolidation

December marked an important milestone for Native American’s across the country. In a landmark 3.2 Billion dollar settlement, the Obama administration finally ended a 14 year class-action lawsuit brought against the U.S. Department of Interior by some 300,000 Native American land owners. In their suit, Native Americans argued that the government failed to pay them nearly 42 billion dollars in lease revenue collected by the government over the past 120 years serving as their self-appointed Trustee. After years of stalling with disingenuous accounting, racking up millions of dollars in legal fees charged to tax payers, withholding and even destroying evidence, a crime for which the Department of Interior was held in contempt of court, the government finally conceded and agreed to settle with the Plaintiffs. According to the lead Plaintiff, Eloise Cobell, “there is little doubt this is significantly less than the full amount to which individual Indians are entitled…Nevertheless we are compelled to settle now by the sobering realization that our class grows smaller each year, each month, and every day, as our elders die, and are forever prevented from receiving their just compensation. We also face the uncomfortable, but unavoidable fact that a large number of individual money account holders currently subsist in the direst poverty, and this settlement can begin to address that extreme situation and provide some hope and a better quality of life for their remaining years.”


Village Earth has reported regularly on the developments in this case for several years now as we are working at the front lines of helping families remove their lands from the Government’s “broken” leasing system, a term used by Larry Ecohawk, head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in a speech at last week’s Intertribal Agriculture Conference in Las Vegas and attended by Village Earth. While we do not challenge the Plaintiffs for their decision to accept such a low settlement, we do however find it deeply unsettling that desperation was a factor, a desperation largely born from the same injustices this case was all about. According to the Plaintiff’s website, the settlement guarantees Native Americans a “$1.4 billion Accounting/Trust Administration Fund and a $2 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund. The Settlement also creates an Indian Education Scholarship fund of up to $60 million to improve access to higher education for Indians.” Based on our experiences working with families and the Tribe assisting with the consolidation and utilization of fractionated interests were are particularly concerned with the proposal for the $2 Billion dollar Trust Land Consolidation Fund. According to the settlement agreement, this program will operate in accordance with the Land Consolidation Program authorized under 25 U.S.C. §§ 2201 also known as the American Indian Probate Reform Act (AIPRA) and Indian Lands Consolidation Act (ILCA). According to the settlement agreement and consistent with the AIPRA the purpose of  the Trust Land Consolidation Fund shall be used solely for the following purposes: (1) acquiring fractional interests in trust or restricted lands; (2) implementing the Land Consolidation Program; and (3) paying the costs related to the work of the Secretarial Commission on Trust Reform, including costs of consultants to the Commission and audits recommended by the Commission. An amount up to a total of no more than fifteen percent (15%) of the Trust Land Consolidation Fund shall be used for purposes (2) and (3) above. The general impact of ILCA programs is a transfer of ownership of land from Individual Indians to Tribal Governments. While this may be an effective strategy for some Tribes, our experience working at the grassroots level on the Pine Ridge Reservation has shown us that many people on the reservation feel that the ILCA exploits the desperation of individuals, tempting them with short-term monetary gain but then leaving them with little long-term benefit. It has also caused tensions within families who feel their allotted lands, even though they are fractionated, should be retained for the benefit of future generations. Despite ILCA, other options exist for individuals, families, and communities to consolidate their lands including Tribal land exchange programs, partitioning, gift deeds, and creating wills however, right now, there is virtually no support for these programs. In fact, our research on Pine Ridge demonstrates that the Federal Government is a primary bottleneck in the whole process. Furthermore, when you consider that, in the case of the Pine Ridge Reservation, all Tribally owned lands have been tied up in loans to the Federal Housing Administration for the past 25 years, this has forced the tribe to lease their lands out, oftentimes to non-tribal members, greatly limiting their ability to develop these lands in a way that will benefit their members. A real solution to repairing the injustices of the past would look at each reservation in a holistic way and consider these differences. ILCA consolidation may not be the best option for each Reservation in those cases, supporting grassroots consolidation efforts my have a greater impact on promoting self-determination and development. Furthermore, it makes little sense to promote tribal and consolidation when at the same time you have the Tribe’s hands tied-behind it’s back with debt to where they benefit very little from those lands.

Settlement Agreement Reached in Cobell v. Salazar

Taken from: http://www.cobellsettlement.com/

A proposed Settlement has been reached with American Indian Plaintiffs in a long-running class action lawsuit against the federal government for mismanagement of individual Indian trust accounts and trust assets. The Settlement is with the Secretary of the Interior, the Assistant Secretary of the Interior-Indian Affairs, and the Secretary of the Treasury. The individual Indian trust accounts relate to land, oil, natural gas, mineral, timber, grazing, water and other resources and rights on or under individual Indian lands.

The class action lawsuit claims that the federal government failed to fulfill its financial responsibility for the individual Indian trust resulting in the loss, misdirection, and unaccountability of several billion dollars of monies held in trust or which should have been held in trust by the United States for Indian beneficiaries in Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts.

Under the terms of the Settlement in Cobell v. Salazar, the federal government will create a $1.412 billion Accounting/Trust Administration Fund and a $2 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund. The Settlement also creates a federal Indian Education Scholarship fund of up to $60 million to improve access to higher education for Indian youth. The Settlement also includes a commitment by the federal government to appoint a commission that will oversee and monitor specific improvements in the Department’s accounting for and management of individual Indian trust assets, going forward.

The Agreement creates two groups of Indians eligible to receive Settlement money – the Historical Accounting Class and the Trust Administration Class. Details of who is eligible follow.

What will IIM Account Holders and other Class Members get?

Most individual Indian beneficiaries are included in both Classes and will receive no less than $1,500 under the terms of the Settlement. There will be a number of distributions:

Each member of the Historical Accounting Class will initially be paid $1,000 after Final Approval of the Settlement. Members of the Trust Administration Class will be paid a “pro rata” share of the $1,412 billion Fund starting with a baseline of $500. This means that each Class Member will get at least $500 and then a percentage of the remaining Fund based on the number of individuals sharing in the Fund. Certain costs, reserves and attorneys fees will be paid out of this Fund before distribution of the pro rata share.

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

Indian Trust Lead Plaintiff Expresses Disappointment on the Appeals Court Ruling

From: www.indiantrust.com

WASHINGTON, JULY 24 — Today’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in the Indian Trust class action lawsuit will prolong what the court has said repeatedly has lasted too long. The case is now in its 14th year.

Elouise Cobell, lead plaintiff for the class of 500,000 individual Indians, expressed disappointment in the ruling, commenting that “it is difficult to understand why the court is reluctant to enforce binding trust law and controlling Supreme Court precedent and ignore the government’s mismanagement of the Individual Indian Trust.”

For hundreds of thousands of Indians, including children, the elderly, and the infirm who depend upon their trust funds for food, clothing, shelter, and health care, this ruling means that many more years will pass before they can hope to secure trust funds that the government has withheld unconscionably and in breach of trust duties that it has owed for generations.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s $455.6 million award in restitution, stating that the district court may not relieve the government of an accounting duty as a matter of law. However, at the same time, the court cast aside settled law, reversed its earlier decisions, and decided that the government need only account for funds that it can identify easily, those that the court described as “low hanging fruit.” Moreover, the court has accepted as good enough for government work its systemic trust records destruction and suggested that it would be unfair to force the government to perform and accurate and complete accounting because its historical breaches of trust now make that accounting too expensive to render.

The Cobell plaintiffs will continue to seek justice in this case, no matter how long that will take. Accordingly, further appellate review will proceed in addition to a request for the district court to place the IIM Trust into receivership to ensure that the beneficiaries their assets finally receive the protection they are owed under the law.

For additional information:

Bill McAllister

703-385-3996

202-257-5385 (cell)