Gallery I
Stolen From Them
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Native Americans Buying Back Their Land

By James Donahue

When the Europeans arrived in North America in the Seventeenth Century, they came face-to-face with Native American cultures with a uniquely different life style and a different sense of values.

While the tribes thought in terms of territory, the concept of land ownership was hard for them to grasp. They thought of the land as most people still think of air and water. It is provided by the Mother Earth for all to use.

Thus when the European settlers began making treaties with the various tribes and “buying” parcels of land in exchange for cheap trinkets and other items, the tribal leaders were easily goaded into accepting the trade.

Later, after the colonies were formed, and the American colonists became organized to form militias and later an army to fight a revolution against the British rule, the stage was set to use military force to push the tribes farther and farther westward. Treaties were drafted for large sections of soil as settlers came by the droves to claim what they perceived as “free” land in the “New World.”

The tragedy was that the Americas were not a new and unsettled world. People have been living on this land for thousands of years. Ruins of former cities, temples and various other structures have been unearthed, most of them in Central and South America and north along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, giving mute testimony to these ancient cultures.

When the concept of Manifest Destiny was invented in the 1840s, union soldiers used force to drive the tribes from their land. The term was a political ploy to justify a westward expansion by the United States to seize such areas as Texas, Oregon and California. The Mexican-American wars were fought to claim the territory that became the State of New Mexico.

Sadly, the many Native American tribes lost their hunting and fishing grounds, their sacred burial grounds and their way of life. After losing their many battles with the advancing American soldiers and farmers, they were herded into confined reservations located on the most worthless parcels of property the Americans could find, mostly in the arid westerly territories.

The Europeans considered themselves superior to the red-skinned natives and took it upon themselves to convert them to Christianity and the Democratic way of life. They created a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs that built schools with dormitory-style living quarters, then forced all of the tribal children to leave their homes and attend these schools for months at a time, learning to speak English and live as “Americans.”

The tribes all across North America endured years of suffering. But there were a few elders among them who clung to the old ways, maintained the language of their ancestors, and remained loyal to the old customs and spiritual ways.

The children grew up and brought the concept of the elected Tribal Councils to the reservations. They also learned to compete for the white man’s jobs, and found ways to accumulate wealth. Now something interesting is happening. The tribes are starting to buy back the land that was stolen from them and putting it in federal trust..

They are targeting ancient burial grounds of their ancestors and the areas where sacred rituals were held. But the tribes also are wisely buying good farmland, timber and other lands where they can generate additional wealth, thus making the tribes self-sustaining.

They also are buying land to keep it from the hands of developers and the ravages of dirt bikers and all-terrain vehicles.

Between 1998 and 2007, government records show that the tribes have put over 840,000 acres into trust.

At a recent count, the Bureau of Indian Affairs reports that 562 tribes hold more than 55 million acres in trust. The Obama Administration has promised to spend $3 billion to buy back additional tribal lands. But some states and local governments are fighting to stop the land grabs, arguing that the federal government lacks the authority to take this land, and the tax revenue it  provides for state and local governments.

That is because federal laws protecting Native American rights exempt the land held in federal trust from local and state laws and taxes. The land, however, remains subject to most federal laws.

Putting land in trust creates a problem for local governments. They must still provide police and fire protection and even sewer and water services, but they cannot collect taxes on the land.

Many of the treaties with the tribes promised the return of the most sacred lands to the tribes, but the treaties were never honored, tribal leaders say. They have given up waiting and are just buying the land they believe is rightfully theirs.

Rodney Bordeaux, president of South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux, said he believes the tribes shouldn’t have to buy back the land because it was illegally taken. But without making formal purchases he, like the other tribal leaders, recognizes that they can never really claim ownership.