A fresh effort to pry more land from the indigenous people of the United States is on the Trump regime’s agenda. Behind the idea is yet another of the centuries-long rip-offs of Indian land and destruction of tribes. The real benefits of the privatization would accrue to non-Indian businesses, including the extractive industries.
In particular, such a scheme would favor fossil fuel corporations. Perhaps 20 percent of the nation’s oil and gas reserves as well as vast coal deposits are found on reservations, even though these only make up 2 percent of the U.S. land base. Privatizing reservations meshes nicely with the Trump team’s moves to deregulate energy development.
A 2016 book by Naomi Schaefer Riley, The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians, has laid out the case for this privatization, a move that a few Indians, including Oklahoma Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin—a tribally enrolled Cherokee who is chairman of Pr*sident Trump’s Native American Coalition—are supporting. Others, however, reject the idea in clear terms, even though many agree that the reservation system as it is currently constituted has failed Native peoples in many ways. Among these is Kelli Mosteller, an enrolled Potawatomi who is director of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center in Shawnee, Oklahoma. She ripped the privatization idea and Riley’s book in an article in The Atlantic:
Reform-minded authors like Schaefer Riley begin making their case by citing a number of terrifying statistics about poverty on reservations, violence against Native women, and teen suicide rates, among others. All are largely factual. Schaefer Riley’s solution, however, creates a false dichotomy, suggesting that success is limited to either the individual or the tribe. She claims that tribal citizens’ inability to privately own, and therefore capitalize on, tribal lands, “prevents American Indians from reaping numerous benefits.” This is a narrow interpretation of the resources and policies that would benefit Natives, and it disregards the cultural and spiritual values at the core of Native American tribal societies.
Mosteller’s view is backed up by a number of progressive Indian leaders:
“Our spiritual leaders are opposed to the privatization of our lands, which means the commoditization of the nature, water, air we hold sacred,” said Tom Goldtooth, a member of both the Navajo and the Dakota tribes who runs the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Privatization has been the goal since colonization—to strip Native Nations of their sovereignty.”
While its advocates say protections would be built in, previous efforts—the allotment system begun near the end of the Indian wars, and the termination of reservations and tribes from 1953 to 1964—show how such promises supposedly designed to help Indians were a snare and delusion quickly taken advantage of by non-Indians eager to grab Native land and devour its resources. This outcome was not an unintended byproduct of well-meaning reformers. It was the inevitable consequence of laws that Indians were not asked their opinions of in advance.
The 21st-century privatization scheme makes it imperative to revisit past such efforts.
In fact, 2017 marks the 130th anniversary of President Grover Cleveland's signing of the Dawes Act. That single piece of legislation had a more devastating impact on Native Americans than anything other than the century-long Indian wars themselves. And it was initiated by people who claimed, and some who actually believed, that they had Indians' best interests at heart.
Alice Fletcher, one of its architects, called the Dawes Act the Indian Magna Carta, though not a single Indian had had a hand in its drafting.
The act allotted each participating Indian head-of-household 160 acres of farm land or 320 acres of grazing land, with 80 acres going to single Indians. The remaining “surplus” was sold to non-Indians, mostly whites. Tribal ownership and the tribes themselves were simply meant to disappear.
It was all part of forced assimilation, a profoundly racist policy dedicated to “killing the Indian to save the man” in the notorious terminology of Captain Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The school was designed along prison lines. There, and at dozens of militaristic boarding schools across the nation, Indian children—many forcibly taken from their parents—had their names changed, their hair cut, their languages forbidden, their culture and customs denigrated, and their tribal ties destroyed, only to be sneered at by the dominant society when they actually tried to adopt white ways once they left the schools.
There is a name for this: cultural genocide. This isn’t just ancient history. Modern American Indians, whether they live on reservations, on private agricultural land, or in urban centers, still suffer from the consequences of these policies.
Before the Dawes Act and follow-up acts were effectively repealed after 47 years by the Indian Reorganization Act, 90 million acres had been wrenched from communally-owned Indian lands held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, leaving just one-third of what the tribes had held in 1886, the year Geronimo (Goyaałé), the Chiricahua Apache, surrendered and was shipped off to prison.
Named after Sen. Henry L. Dawes, who headed the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at the time, the law was the culmination of practices toward Indians that had begun within a decade of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth in 1620. Boiled down to their essence, those policies said to Indians: Get out of our way, or else. However, getting out of the way often wasn't enough to prevent the "or else."
The Dawes Act arose at least partly out of the influence of a book written by Helen Hunt Jackson in 1881, A Century of Dishonor. It was the Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee of the 19th century, documenting the bloodthirsty avarice, corruption, and slaughter that had suffused Indian-U.S. relations all those decades since the first U.S. war against Indians in 1788. Jackson didn't live to see the Dawes Act passed, but she would no doubt have approved, just as so many of her readers did.
The intent was assimilation. Killing the Indian and saving the man meant turning Indians into farmers of acreage they held individually, altering gender roles, shattering kinship connections, breaking up communal land and tribal government, and, ultimately, wiping out reservations altogether. Officials thought this would be better for everyone as Indians adopted norms of the dominant culture. It would certainly prove valuable for transferring prime real estate out of Native hands.
The allotted land was meant to be held in federal trust for 25 years, after which ownership and citizenship would go to Indians still working their allotment. To take full possession of any land, a woman had to be officially married. All inherited land passed through the male head of household. This broke the custom of the many tribes with matrilineal heritages.
The “surplus” land, that is, what was left after allotments, was flung open to white settlement and ownership. This was the provision's most likable quality for congressmen and businessmen who would just have soon have slaughtered or starved every Indian still alive. Half the Great Sioux Reservation was sold to outsiders after Native allotments were distributed.
As Youngstown University assistant professor G. Mehera Gerardo has noted, even before the ink was dry on the act, speculators were making deals to trade or buy Indian lands that were supposed to be off-limits for a quarter century. But they mostly postponed development for fear the government would confiscate what they'd shadily acquired before the trust period expired. Thus were many Indians able to keep to their traditional ways of life for a while longer, treating the land as if it were still held communally, even though they'd already bargained their allotments away. State and local governments soon found ways around the law to permit outsiders to buy allotments. Hemmed in by fences, cut off by private ownership of forests and riverine areas, Indians now found themselves no longer able to subsist on hunting and fishing, unwelcome both in white society and on what had been their own turf.
Meanwhile, funds from the sale of reservation land, which were supposed to benefit the tribes, were mismanaged, often not paid for decades, sometimes outright embezzled. Money that did make it to the proper federal accounts was often used for things Indians did not find worthwhile. The late historian Melissa L. Meyer wrote, “Facile generalizations about Anishinaabe dependence on welfare gratuities mask the fact that they essentially financed their own ‘assimilation.'”
Thanks to the lobbying of those for whom no amount of freed-up Indian land was enough, new federal legislation was passed in 1906 to allow Indians to sell their allotments well before the end of the trust period. Many, hating farming or broke from trying, sold at rock-bottom prices. Those who had actually received land suitable for farming, and much of it was not, couldn't afford the tools, seed, animals, and other supplies required. Small government grants were insufficient and most Indians could obtain no credit. They had received no training. Even if parents knew how to farm, children coerced into boarding schools came home years later without the necessary skills. Inherited land was often divided among too many heirs to be large enough to farm, a problem that still exists today.
The dispossession was wildly successful. Partly as a consequence of the act, by 1900 the American Indian population had fallen to its lowest point in U.S. history, about 237,000.
The allotment period was ended under President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. But within a few years, a new effort was begun to create additional “surplus” land for non-Indian settlement: Termination.
Starting in 1940, moves were made by several states to take over jurisdiction of the reservations within their boundaries, and in 1953, the federal government enacted a law that immediately terminated the Flathead, Klamath, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Turtle Mountain Chippewa, as well as all tribes in the states of California, New York, Florida, and Texas. In the process, 109 tribes were terminated, and 1.4 million acres of Indian land were added to the 90 million acres taken under Dawes and other allotment acts.
In 1968, however, President Johnson proposed ending the termination acts, a move formally declared by President Nixon and followed until 1988 when Congress rescinded the House resolution that had begun federal termination. Eventually, the majority of the terminated tribes were restored, along with some of their land. But 11 tribes continue to fight for restoration of tribal sovereignty and their land.
Resistance to the new potential for another brand of termination has yet to gather steam, but if the Trump regime decides to move ahead with the privatization scheme, that resistance will rise. And this time around, thanks to organizations that didn’t exist in the past like the Native American Rights Fund, the American Indian Movement, Idle No More, as well as young tribal leaders and Native attorneys and their non-Indian allies in and out of Congress, advocates of this latest rip-off shouldn’t expect an easy path to their goals.