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Land Management

South Dakota Black Hills Custer State parkAs the General Allotment Act of 1887 (also called the Dawes Act) was implemented on Indian reservations accross the U.S., land that was perceived to be the most valuable was generally declared “surplus” and was sold or transferred to non-Indian parties. And while much of the land that remained in Indian control is still productive, the fractionated ownership of trust lands and the excessive federal bureaucracy involved in managing these interests makes it nearly impossible for Indian people to use these lands themselves. Today, the vast majority of agricultural lands on reservations are leased out to non-Indian ranchers, and often at less than fair-market value. In addition, income from these lands goes off the reservation instead of to the Indian landowners who experience high rates of unemployment and often live in poor economic conditions.

For example, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, in 2002 there were nearly $33 million in receipts from agricultural production, yet less than one third of that income went to members of the tribe, one of the poorest in the U.S. Today, just 20 people control nearly 46 percent of reservation lands on Pine Ridge through leasing.1 On the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, the market value of agricultural products sold in 2007 was $19.5 million and yet more than 30 percent of the 10,100 people on the reservation live in poverty.2

Some reservations have rich stores of valuable natural resources, and yet the federal government, acting as “trustee,” has allowed energy, mining and other extractive industries to exploit Indian nations by routinely shortchanging them on royalties from oil, gas, timber and other purchase or lease agreements on Indian land.

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1Pine Ridge Reservation Allottee Land Planning Map Book, Village Earth, 2009.

2“Selected Characteristics of All Reservation Farms and of Reservation Farms Operated by American Indians or Alaska Natives in Montana,” National Agriculture Statistics Service 2007 Census of Agriculture American Indian Reservations Volume 2: Tribal Lands in Montana, U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000.