LITTLE CANADA, Minn. – The importance of land – including its value to and spiritual relationship with people – has not changed for centuries and the battle for land continues, whether for economic development or for cultural reasons.
The “Great Land Grab” of the 19th century devastated Indian country. While some of it was intentional and some well-meaning, the result was a negative impact on people and homelands.
A new documentary film, “American Indian Homelands: Matters of Truth, Honor and Dignity Immemorial,” explains in some detail how the land grab by the federal government, sleazy government officials and non-Native individuals, nearly destroyed the indigenous peoples of North America.
“American Indian Homelands” does not preach, nor does it whine about past atrocities: it matter-of-factly unfolds the events of the past 150 years on land issues. If someone is confused over the reasons for the Cobell v. Kempthorne litigation, Individual Indian Money accounts and tribal trust land, this documentary will help explain.
Fractionation, or land held in common, was decreed by federal act; and of all the acts that helped to bilk the land from the American Indians, the Dawes Act dealt a devastating blow to future families and to the victims of the act.
April 4, 1878, the day the Dawes Act was signed into law, is a day that will live in infamy for Indian country, to play on the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Dawes Act, or Allotment Act, allotted acreages on reservations to American Indian families and the rest was offered to settlers.
Right on the heels of that devastating act came the Burke Act that caused many allotments to be moved into fee, and therefore taxable, status; and if the owner did not realize this, he could lose the land for nonpayment of taxes or for other debt.
The documentary provides overall reasons why land was and is important to individuals and to the tribes. Even though the viewer will not be able to pass a test on Native law, or detailed history, the general idea is present.
The film, narrated by famed news broadcaster Sam Donaldson, is lovely to look at visually, but hard to listen to with emotional detachment. For the liberal-minded, as is stated in the film, it does not dredge up the need to take up a banner of protest against the government’s actions (or lack thereof). The film does not offer suggestions for alternatives to alleviate the continuing problems; it lays out a well-organized history of land takings and the aftereffects of that policy.
In the film, Millie Tapedo, Oklahoma Apache, relates the story of her family when they at one time received $1,200 per month in oil royalties, which suddenly dropped to $150 per month. She and a relative went to the BIA realty office, confronted the officer, asked when a check would arrive and received no satisfaction until she noticed her check on his desk. She was then told it had been on the desk for about a week.
The people who offer information in the documentary are mostly tribal officials, educators or attorneys, and their information comes strictly from a legal or educated point of view. This film is about historical reality and the reality of today.
After the Allotment Act ended, as a result of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, more than 90 million acres had gone out of tribally or individually owned hands.
There are many anecdotal incidents of land grabbing documented in the film, land taken from families and tribes. The film also deals with the difficulties and impact on families that probate can have in Indian country. Some probate took more than 40 years to finalize. Probate was handled by the BIA. Probate reform is currently an issue between the federal government and the tribes.
This is a documentary that should be mandatory viewing for congressional staff and state administration officials where reservations are located, and should be included in every curriculum of every public school in Indian country, for non-Indian and American Indian students alike.
This film not only tells the history but also the contemporary land situation, and will leave the viewer wondering why this process is still taking place.
“American Indian Homelands” is a Vanbar Productions film, in association with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. Executive producer is Barry ZeVan; co-producers are Chris Stainbrook and Barry ZeVan; editor and director of photography is Brad Johnson; and the director, writer and production designer is Barry ZeVan.