Group sees momentum to recover Indian lands
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When Cris Stainbrook makes a presentation, he likes to document the gradual loss of the Indian land base with a map of the United States.

In 1492, the map is filled with red, to signify total Indian control. By the early 1800s, it starts to fade noticeably, with only lands west of the Mississippi in tribal ownership.

As the 1900s approach, large areas in the Plains and the Pacific Northwest start to disappear. By treaty or by force, he says, the acreage was reduced to 138 million acres.

From then, its a rapid decline due to allotment and other federal laws and policy. His final map is one from 1934, when only 48 million acres remained in Indian ownership, 90 million having been ceded, open to homesteading or otherwise lost.

Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, hopes to reverse course. In the midst of a nationwide education effort about the goals of his organization, the recent recipient of a $20 million planning and development grant, he sees a growing momentum throughout Indian Country to do the same.

"What we are fundamentally about is the recovery of all land within the reservation boundaries on all reservations and other areas of significance to the tribes," he said yesterday during a presentation to the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) in suburban Washington, D.C.

Stainbrook attributes heightened interest to a number of factors, not the least of which is the Cobell trust fund lawsuit. The federal government in 1887 began to parcel out tribal lands to individual tribal members, prompting not only the wholesale destruction of the Indian estate but a tangle of ownership that continues today.

Education, economic development, cultural programs and reform of laws and policies are the basis of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation's strategy. Fulfilling it is a long-term effort, Stainbrook acknowledges, and points to the need for unity on a national level.

"All the tribes are in this together," he said. "What will happen to one tribe will essentially affect all the others."

Stainbrook and his colleagues spent the last few days in Washington, D.C., meeting with Congressional staff members, Bureau of Indian Affairs officials and White House aides. BIA acting deputy commissioner Terry Virden said yesterday he was hoped the agency would be a part of the solution.

"Our goals are mutual," he told USET attendees.

The BIA is embarking on its own related initiative. President Bush's fiscal year 2004 budget seeks $21 million for a land consolidation program that will encourage Indian landowners to sell their lands to tribes and encourage estate planning, Virden said. A pilot project was completed in Wisconsin. "We hope, as we expand nationally, to try some other ideas," he said.

Eddie Tullis, chairman of the Poarch Creek Tribe of Alabama, encouraged USET tribes, which have suffered from large land losses, to get involved. He pointed back to Stainbrook's presentation and said he had a vision of the future.

"I've told myself and I've told my kids and grandkids that before my time is through, I will see the Bureau of Indian Affairs send out one of those maps," he said. "I want to see one that shows some increase in Indian land."

Relevant Links:
Indian Land Tenure Foundation -

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