Land issues on Native American Reservations are extremely complex and masked by layers and layers of bureaucracy. The old axiom, knowledge is power is the name of the game. But the game has changed with the advent of computerized mapping such as GIS (Geographic Information Systems) which has created a common platform for the exchange, creation, analysis, and presentation of geographic information. Where in the past, geographic information was stored deep in filing cabinets, hard to comprehend, and controlled by a few gatekeepers, GIS has allowed us to democratize this information, making it more accessible and more understandable. This approach is not new. Decolonization theorist Frantz Fanon recognized the importance of mapping in his classic 1961 work, “The Wretched of the Earth”, when he said “The colonial world is a world divided into compartments Yet, if we examine closely this system of compartments, we will at least be able to reveal the lines of force it implies. This approach to the colonial world, its ordering and its geographical layout will allow us to mark out the lines on which a decolonized society will be organized.” Edward Said mirrored these comments when he said: “the “slow and often bitterly disputed recovery of geographical territory which is at the heart of decolonization is preceded–as empire had been–by the charting of cultural territory.”
Village Earth’s work with the Oglala Lakota on Pine Ridge is a good illustration in how mapping can be powerful tool for decolonization, but to understand how, requires a look back at the history of land issues for Native Americans in general and on Pine Ridge specifically.
Between the period of 1492 to 1887 Native Americans were left with a territory that consisted of only 150 million acres of land. Furthermore, the practice of communally managed lands by some tribes was viewed by the Federal Government as a non-productive and irrational use of resources. To address these interests, in 1887 the U.S. Congress passed General Allotment Act (GAA) also known as the Dawes Severalty Act. The purpose of the act was to liquidate Indian land holdings by dividing the land up into 40 to160-acre allotments to heads of households. After all the allotments were issued remaining lands in the West, which totaled over 60,000,000 acres, was opened up to homesteaders. Along with the liquidating nearly 2/3rds of all “surplus” Indian lands, The GAA also created several contradictions for the use and inheritance of the remaining lands that would have deep implications for virtually all aspects of life for Native Americans. It broke apart communally managed lands into individually owned parcels destroyed 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.
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. According to the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, nearly 27,000,000 acres of land was lost as a result. Although the practice of issuing forced fee patents and forced leasing ended in 1934 with the passing of the Wheeler-Howard Act, the effects are still felt today. In that many families are landless because an ancestor was issued a fee patent and lost their land through tax forfeit or bank foreclosure.
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.
Under the GAA the land alloted to Individual Indians is not really owned by them, rather it is held in Trust by the Federal Government. This means the land can be used by the Allottee but not sold. This situation has severely limited the ability of Indian landowners to develop assets on their lands including housing, business, and other infrastructure because they are not able to use it as a guarantee for loans.
The GAA also established a system for how lands would be inherited from a landowner to his children. 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. After several generations lands have become so fractionated that you might have as many as several hundred 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 at least 50% of the land owners on decisions related to the land.
With financial support from the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, Village Earth is developing Strategic Land Planning Map Books, a sort of “land recovery atlas” of the Pine Ridge Reservation, to provide the information necessary and clarify the steps for Native American Land owners to identify, consolidate, and utilize their lands. It contains easy to understand instructions and diagrams on how landowners can use the descriptions from their “interest reports” (a sort of Tribal land title created by the Federal Government) to locate maps of their lands, instructions and procedures for consolidating lands, removing lands from the Federal leasing program, partitioning lands, and creating wills. It also contains maps of the current leasing patterns as well as maps of the traditional communities that were broken apart by the Dawes Act and federal housing programs. In conjunction with a series of strategic land-planning workshops, one-to-one consultation, and training a corps of local land-planning consultants in each district, we hope to help reverse some of the damages created by 120 years of exploitative land policies on the Pine Ridge Reservation. For more information about this project contact David Bartecchi [email protected]