To early settlers from Europe, America seemed like unexplored territory waiting to be taken. But to the people who were already here, the land seemed, very simply, like home.
Native people had developed land-based cultures in every corner of the Americas by the time the newcomers arrived, and when they ultimately lost most of that land, they lost much more than places to hunt, fish, farm, and dwell. They lost spiritual sustenance, sacred burial grounds, and knowledge based on specific places, along with the kind of soul connection to a familiar environment that cannot be summarized in words.
“There was virtually no pristine wilderness by the time Europeans arrived, because we’d already been there,” says Alvin Warren, the first Land Claims/Rights Protection Coordinator for New Mexico’s Santa Clara Pueblo. “Only today are non-Native people starting to appreciate the intimate relationship between our ancestors and their homeland.”
Hundreds of years after the land was lost, Alvin Warren and other Native Americans are teaming up with the Trust for Public Land to recover at least some of that former territory for tribal use or ownership — melding Native American knowledge with TPL’s expertise in real estate, finance, conservation, and the law to create the only program of its kind at a U.S. conservation organization. Through 2003, TPL’s Tribal Lands Program has helped 17 tribes secure more than 43,000 acres in 12 states. “This program epitomizes TPL’s mission of conserving land for people,” says TPL Senior Vice President Bowen Blair, who helped launch the effort in 1999. “And, more important, TPL’s experience, skills, and mission are a perfect match for the needs we see in Native communities across the country– communities that traditionally had and, to a large extent, today have an intimate relationship with the land.”
Alvin Warren serves as chairman of the TPL program’s ten-member Tribal Lands Advisory Council. “Fundamental issues of justice and empowerment are involved in the reacquisition of ancestral land,” Warren says. “TPL’s Tribal Lands Program recognizes the crucial value of land within Native American societies and the careful stewardship of natural resources that result from that life-sustaining relationship. The program also demonstrates how unifying and expanding ancestral land bases can help tribes deal with ongoing economic issues.”
A History of Dispossession
Restoring Native lands is a task much complicated by history. Virtually from the moment of their arrival, immigrants began displacing indigenous people. One culminating insult was the 1887 Dawes Act, an effort to turn Native peoples into farmers and private landowners that ultimately resulted in more than 90 million acres of Native land passing into non-Native hands.
Today much of the land that was once most important to Native peoples is thoroughly developed and irretrievably lost to tribal ownership. But other traditional lands are available, and tribes are more committed than ever to recovering at least some of that property. Owning or managing traditional land strengthens Native communities and expands opportunities for tribal groups, while conserving natural resources. It also reduces such illegal activities as the looting of artifacts and desecration of graves.
Take, for example, the traditional homeland of the Nez Perce Tribe in the Wallowa Valley of northeastern Oregon. In 1805, the tribe had offered assistance to explorers Lewis and Clark as they crossed Nez Perce territory. But by 1877, the Nez Perce under their charismatic leader, Chief Joseph, were defeated in their last attempt to hold onto that land and were relocated to reservations in other states.
But some tribal members never gave up hope that they would recapture at least a foothold in their Oregon homeland. They petitioned the government to no avail, and they tried to buy land from the descendents of the settlers who had displaced them. Finally, in 1997, after years of intricate negotiations, TPL forged a deal for the Nez Perce to acquire a former 10,000-acre cattle ranch to manage as a wildlife refuge. Support for the $2.5 million project came from TPL donors and from the Bonneville Power Administration, which needed to protect habitat as replacement for land lost to wildlife by dams on the Columbia River.
“Those of us working with the Tribal Lands Program care deeply about our mission,” says Jaime Pinkham, a former Nez Perce council member who has gone on to help TPL’s Tribal Lands Program protect land for other Native peoples. “We are absolutely unique in what we do: successfully carrying out real estate negotiations, locating money, working with state and federal funding sources, and making legal agreements that return land to tribes.”
Any transaction involving tribal land is likely to be complex. Participants tiptoe through a daunting minefield of federal treaties, Supreme Court decisions, judicial authorities, ownership claims, tax codes, and multiagency regulations. Potential funding is often hidden in obscure programs, while transfers may demand in-depth knowledge of public landownership. It’s no surprise that many tribal governments, with limited financial and legal resources of their own, frequently find it hard to respond even to overtures from willing sellers.
Land for Pueblo People
“I think that 100 percent of tribes in this country are eager to reacquire at least some of their lands,” declares Everett Ch?vez, governor of New Mexico’s Santo Domingo Pueblo, which has partnered twice with the Tribal Lands Program to obtain more than 8,500 acres.
While each of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos kept at least some of their ancestral land during Spanish and Mexican rule, they lost much of that — tens of thousands of acres — following the U.S. takeover in 1846. “Our legal position was weak,” explains Ch?vez, “since our people never felt compelled to put up fences or to build permanent structures on much of their land. We didn’t occupy it, though we all shared in our use of it.” Ch?vez estimates that Santo Domingo retains only 90,000 acres of its original 277,000 acres of homeland. The pueblo continues to negotiate for more land, not “simply for monetary reasons,” Ch?vez stresses, “but mainly because of the land’s cultural significance.
“It’s great that there are groups out there, like TPL, that can help us do this,” says Ch?vez. “Creative partnering can be challenging, and we appreciate the expertise that others provide.”
How complicated can such deals be? In 2001 TPL helped San Felipe Pueblo — a next-door neighbor to Santo Domingo — add 9,000 acres to its tribal land base. These lands were not simply purchased by San Felipe Pueblo but were gained through a TPL-assisted land exchange. Pueblo funds were used to help acquire spectacular lands along the Rio Grande River just south of Taos, New Mexico, for the public ownership by the Bureau of Land Management. The property, known as the Taos Valley Overlook, offers one of the most sweeping and best-known views in the Rio Grande Valley. In return for this land, the BLM exchanged ancestral lands of an equal market value to San Felipe Pueblo.
Protecting Traditional Uses
Other projects focus on creating Native access to lands of historic, spiritual, and cultural importance. Farther south in New Mexico, the Tribal Lands Program is working with the ?coma and Zuni Pueblos in an effort to acquire ranchland threaded with ceremonial trade routes and dotted with cultural sites and sacred petroglyphs that have been visited by Native people for centuries.
“Today the Zuni must cross private property in order to collect mud, cattails, and other materials that are used for sacred purposes,” says Deb Love, director of TPL’s New Mexico office. “We’re trying to change that.” She adds that such agreements often yield win-win situations for all parties: honoring Native American traditions, compensating sellers, and conserving precious natural resources.
In the Pacific Northwest, analogous struggles are opening access to lands where that region’s tribes traditionally have hunted, fished, and obtained culturally important materials. On the rainy Olympic Peninsula of Washington, for instance, a series of events, including a fraudulent 19th-century survey, has long restricted the Quinault Indian Nation’s use of old-growth forests, including the harvesting of large trees for ceremonial canoes.
Now TPL is working to secure a $50 million conservation easement over 4,000 acres of old growth, allowing the tribe to protect the land forever while opening it to traditional use. “Our tribe will be able to use that land, while the habitats of sensitive species are protected,” says Pearl Capoeman-Baller, president of the Quinault Indian Nation Business Committee. Such species include the threatened marbled murrelet, northern spotted owl, and bull trout.
Farther inland in Washington, the Tribal Lands Program has spearheaded a campaign to protect Lyle Point at the confluence of the Klickitat and Columbia Rivers in the eastern Columbia Gorge. For generations, members of the Klickitat Band of the Yakama Nation have come to Lyle Point to net salmon from wooden perches high above the river, and the land has great meaning to the band.
In 1998, after a plan to build 33 vacation homes at Lyle Point had been approved, TPL stepped in to purchase the land for $2.5 million, even before a source of funding for permanent protection became obvious. Thanks to the generosity of its donors, TPL has been able to hold the land ever since, all the while working toward permanent funding and a protection plan that includes Native American access and use.
“When your spirit goes, it should be sent off properly or you wander,” tribal elder Patty Timbimboo-Madsen of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation told an interviewer last year. “Those people who passed on could never tell their story. They’re calling out for someone to help them, to send them on their way.”
“Those people” were 300 of Timbimboo-Madsen’s own ancestors — men, women, and children gunned down in 1863 by U.S. volunteer soldiers along the Bear River in southeastern Idaho. Last year, TPL and its partners raised funds to purchase the Bear River massacre site, most recently a cattle pasture, and donate it to the band. Following the acquisition, the band held a sacred ceremony honoring the people brutally murdered more than 140 years ago. The spirit of her ancestors, says Patty Timbimboo-Madsen said, were finally at rest.
Despite their relatively small acreage, the potential educational and human impact of such projects is enormous, says Tribal Lands Program field representative Laura Baxter, a member of the Pit River Tribe in California. “Our goal is not simply the pragmatic one of returning lands to tribal hands,” she concludes, “but of bringing understanding to others about the relationship between Native American people and the land.”
A freelancer specializing in Native American and environmental issues, Richard Mahler divides his time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Santa Cruz, California. His latest book,Stillness: Daily Gifts of Solitude, was published in 2003 by Red Wheel.