October 1, 2007

Do any american indian tribes still own their original homelands?



Do the American Indians today own land that was once their own land prior to the coming of the White man? What reservations existed prior to the defeat of Custer? and where did Sitting Bull’s men go to in Canada after the battle of the Little Big Horn? –Submitted by J. McAuliffe, Australia


Reservations in the United States

There are 561 federally recognized tribal governments in the United States, and dozens more state recognized and unrecognized american Indian tribes in the US who are currently fighting (through a lengthy legal appeal process that can take 20 or more years) for recognition.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is the US government agency responsible for the administration and management of the 55.7 million acres of land held in trust by the United States for American Indians, Indian tribes, and Alaska Natives. This is approximately 2.3% of all the land in the United States.

In the United States, the BIA is responsible for developing forestlands, leasing assets on reservation lands such as oil and mineral deposits and grazing rights, directing agricultural programs, protecting water and land rights, and developing and maintaining infrastructure and economic development on all reservation lands. However, they have grossly mis-managed this responsiblity over the last 200 years, and it is alleged they have cheated the Indians out of billions of dollars owed to them for use of the resources on reservation lands.

On June 10, 1996, Elouise Campbell, a Blackfoot banker and great granddaughter of the legendary Blackfoot leader, Mountain Chief, filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all american indians to try to recover those funds. Over the years of court litigation, the BIA has destroyed piles of documents pertaining to this matter and several times been held in contempt of court for failing to produce these records for the courts. The case is still ongoing, with no end in sight.

As part of the Cobell litigation, the BIA website was ordered off the Internet until they fix security holes that made their site, and the records and distribution of american indian funds, vulnerable to hackers. To date, they have not complied with the court order to fix their website and remain offline.

Today, there are 304 Indian reservations in the United States. In California, about half of its reservations are called Rancherias. In New Mexico, most reservations are called Pueblos. In some western states, notably Nevada, there are Native American areas called Indian Colonies, and in Alaska they are called Indian communities or indian villages.

Some tribes have more than one reservation, others have none, and some reservations are shared by multiple tribes. In recent years, some landless tribes have begun buying up private plots of land and placing them into Trust for their tribe and some tribes that already had reservations have been purchasing private lands to add to their land base. With the advent of indian casinos, some tribes have traded parcels of land for other parcels in more desirable locations for a casino.

Because of past land sales and allotments, which were inherited and were divided by ever increasing numbers of heirs,many of whom sold their shares, some reservations are severely fragmented. There are also numerous smaller parcels of Indian Trust lands that are not part of reservations. Slightly more than half of all american indians live off their reservations in cities and towns along with all other Americans in the US.

Very few American Indian tribes still own or live on their actual ancestral lands, although a few tribes do. Some tribes no longer have a land base at all. Most tribes were relocated to reservations located on less desirable lands than their original homelands, and with a fraction of the land each tribe originally claimed as their territory. The Navajo, Hopi, Pueblos, Crow, Seminole, and Blackfoot reservations are on lands that were a small part of those tribes’ original territories. The Hopi, Kootenai Tribe, and the Seminoles have never signed any treaty with any non-Indian nation.

Development of the US reservation system

On August 1, 1758, the first Indian reservation in North America was established by the New Jersey Colonial Assembly.

The first treaties between american indian tribes and the US were made in 1789 when Indian agents were assigned under the Department of War. In 1830, the Indian Removal Act forced eastern indian tribes to move west of the Mississippi and the US Federal government assumed trusteeship of Indian lands, resources, and affairs.

In 1849, the office of Indian Affairs wass transferred from the War Department to the Dept. of the Interior and it became common practice to move indian people onto reservations, with the Dept. of the Interior assuming management of public lands expropriated from Native people.

In 1851, the United States Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act which authorized the creation of Native American reservations on land that is now in the State of Oklahoma. The policy called for the replacement of government officials by religious men, nominated by churches, to oversee the Indian agencies on reservations in order to teach Christianity to the native tribes. The Quakers were especially active in this policy on reservations. The “civilization” policy was aimed at eventually preparing the tribes for citizenship.

Systematic military campaigns to destroy the subsistence base of Plains people occurred from the 1850s-70s, to force plains tribes onto reservations. In that 20 year period, what was once estimated as 20-60 million free roaming bison (commonly referred to as “buffalo”) were driven to the edge of extinction to further this goal, with less than 1,000 animals remaining by the 1890s. In 1904, there were only four known pure bison left. They were used to start the Yellowstone Park foundation bison herd, the only remaining wild bison herd in the lower 48 states today, which now numbers around 3,000-3,500 animals.

Reservation treaties sometimes included stipend agreements, in which the federal government would grant a certain amount of goods, including food, to a tribe annually. The implementation of the policy was erratic, however, and in many cases the promised goods were not delivered.

In many cases, the lands granted to indian tribes were scrub lands not suited to agricultural cultivation, leaving many tribes who accepted the policy in a state bordering on starvation, as their lands were quickly overhunted.

The Nez Perce Treaty, ratified in 1868, was the last Indian treaty ratified by the U.S. government.

In the 1870s, Congress abolished treaty making with Indian nations, and turned to Congress and Executive Orders to make unilateral decisions concerning Indians and their resources. Indian lands and resources were expropriated at unprecedented rates and redistributed to settlers; large-scale attempts were made to dismantle tribes and assimilate Indian people into the “mainstream” through land reform (Dawes Act 1887), forced reeducation, and outlaw of their cultures. This resulted in widespread poverty, loss of lands/resources, abuse and neglect; and most communities took their culture and languages underground.

The Dawes Act of 1877 drastically reduced Indian landholdings by allotting 160 acres to the heads of families and 80 acres to individuals. “Surplus lands” on the reservations were then opened up to white settlement. Over the years, each subsequent generation of heirs inheriting the family allotment have fractinated many indian lands into very tiny shares, creating a nightmare paper trail that is part of the problem the lawsuit of Cobell vs Kempthorne hopes to address.

The last indian reservation established in Montana was Rocky Boy Reservation, home to the Chipewa-Cree, in 1916. It was established by executive order, not by treaty. The majority of indian reservations were already established at the time of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. There were only a few bands of indians left who refused to comply with orders to go onto the reservations, or who had been on reservations but left their reservation when their people began to starve from lack of resources.

The Nez Perce fought the last of the big indian wars and were forced onto reservations in 1877.

In 1924 most indians were granted US citizenship and allotment policies ended.

Canadian Indian Reserves

In Canada the equivelent of the US reservation is called a reserve, indian reserve, or First Nation reserve. The Canadian aboriginal peoples are divided into First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, and reservation populations are referenced by bands.

An Indian reserve is specified by the (Canadian) Indian Act as a “tract of land, the legal title to which is vested in Her Majesty, that has been set apart by Her Majesty for the use and benefit of a band.” The Act also specifies that land reserved for the use and benefit of a band which is not vested in the Crown (for example, Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve on Manitoulin Island is one of 13 Unceded Reserves) is also subject to the Indian Act provisions governing reserves.

Canadian indian reserves are overseen by the Minister of Indian Affairs, who has the right to “determine whether any purpose for which lands in a reserve are used is for the use and benefit of the band.” Few reserves have any economic advantages, such as resource revenues. The revenues of those reserves which do are held in trust by the Minister of Indian Affairs.

In all, there are over 600 occupied reserves in Canada, most of them quite small in area. The largest is Six Nations 40 in Ontario, which has about 20,000 band members.

Sitting Bull

From 1850 until his death in 1890, Sitting Bull symbolized the conflict between settlers and native American culture over lifestyles, land, and resources.

After his most famous battle at the Little Big Horn in Montana in June 1876, in which General George Custer’s forces were completely annihilated, Sitting Bull left the United States for the Cypress Hills in the Saskatchewan provence of Canada.

Sitting Bull claimed that to the Sioux, the American and Canadian sides of the border were traditional hunting grounds. On this basis, he claimed the Sioux were as much Canadian Indians as American. Furthermore, the Sioux had been loyal to Britain during the battles for New France, and their loyalty persisted through the War of 1812.

As proof, Sitting Bull displayed a set of medals given to his grandfather by King George III for his support in the American Revolutionary War. In coming to Canada, Sitting Bull wanted to live under the justice and protection of Canadian law and be granted Canadian land.

Unfortunately, Sir John A. Macdonald’s government refused to provide Sitting Bull with land, food or support. They saw the Sioux as American Indians who had crossed the International Boundary into Canada and should be persuaded to leave. The Blackfoot, Cree and Assiniboine of Canada also felt the Hunkpapa Sioux should leave, and accused them of stealing their buffalo and depleting the game in their hunting ranges.

A famous meeting between Sitting Bull, NWMP Commissioner Macleod, Major Walsh, and U.S. General Alfred H. Terry took place on October 17, 1877 at Fort Walsh, Saskatchewan.

In 1879, two years after Sitting Bull and his band entered Canada, disaster struck when the buffalo did not appear and his people began to die from starvation. Some of his band returned to the United States in small groups over the next two years, and some died from starvation.

Finally, on July 19, 1881, as Sitting Bull surrendered at Fort Buford, Sitting Bull handed his rifle to his son, saying that he must now learn how to live with the whites, and urged him to remember that his father was the last Sioux to give up his gun. Shortly after, he and his followers, now only numbering about 187, boarded steamships to go to Standing Rock Reservation.

Before his death, Sitting Bull traveled with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, touring Europe for several years before returning again to the reservation, where two years later Sitting Bull was shot and killed on December 15, 1890.

The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is the sixth largest indian reservation in the United States and was established by the Fort Laramie Treaty OF 1868, but drastically reduced in size after gold was discovered in the Black Hills.


Truth and consequences on the reservation–the Elouise Cobell story

Elouise Cobell heard the stories for years: the government was cheating Native Americans on payments for land rights. She took up the cause, which has now turned into a class action suit representing 500,000 native americans.

Terminated Tribes

During the late 1940s to the early 1960s, in a move to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream America, the U.S. government ended federal trusteeship of roughly three percent of the country’s Native American population through a process called termination.

The changing view of Indian law by the U.S. Supreme Court

The foundation of Indian law lies in the “Marshall trilogy” of cases that recognized the independence of tribes and the political relationship between the tribes and the United States.


The official website for the Cobell vs Kempthorne class action lawsuit, previously known as Cobell vs Norton.

2007 Bureau of Indian Affairs Press Releases

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Official Website

Mailbag Archive
About Raven SiJohn

Leave a Reply