Land abuse not acceptable

SISSETON, S.D. - Landowners here are angry about the lack of respect and violation of their rights as landowners.

What prompted the anger and a two-state meeting was a local power company cutting trees on private land without the permission or knowledge of the landowners.

"The trees were cut on allotted land. The trees and the land belonged to the family," said Della Eastman, Sisseton-Wahpeton tribal member and organizer of a grass-roots land issues group. She said the power company was supposed to trim the trees in the right of way, but it cut them down, close to the ground.

"The power company said they knew they weren't supposed to be there, but the BIA approved," Eastman said. There was no response from the BIA or Whetstone Valley Power Co.

She said a meeting is planned May 25 to plan a class-action lawsuit against the BIA and the power company. Tribal members on reservations in North and South Dakota are finally speaking up for their rights, she said. For too long they didn't know if they could say anything, but after a recent Unity-Land Issues meeting in Sisseton, the answer was clear that people can now speak out, she added.

Al Reevis, president of the Montana Landowners Association, attended the recent Unity-Land Issues meeting. He said his purpose was to educate the North and South Dakota landowners about their rights. In his role as president of the organization, he said he spends time with many groups to inform them of their rights.

"The BIA violates its own laws and the tribal councils are not helping people. It's sad," he said. "Some people think we are a bunch of dumb Indians."

Reevis said Indian country needs to learn about and use laws written by the non-Indian lawmakers to keep rights over the land.

"The BIA is supposed to protect us, but they neglect their responsibility."

The organization in Montana has won valuable cases to retain water rights for tribes. He said 25 Code of Federal Regulations contains all the information necessary to sustain water, mineral and land rights.

"This issue is a sleeping giant, a spiritual movement. We are now coming together to protect our holy lands and holy water. They cut down the trees that are sacred, the trees are used in Sun Dance offerings and in the sweat lodge.

"Some tribes have ceremonies to cut down the trees," Reevis said.

The organization he heads in Montana has had success with land and water issues in that state simply because it is allowed to offer comments to councils and to the BIA. He said at one time a local BIA superintendent was against what his group was doing, but now is in support. The intent is to make sure landowners have a say when it comes to issues and rules with the councils and the bureau.

A landowner sometimes receives a little more than $1,000 a year from a lease while the rancher pays upwards of $12,000 for that year, according to the number of cow and calf combinations and acreage, he said.

"Why should the elders die in poverty when the cattlemen drive new trucks and big trailers. We need to give the land back to the landowners," Reevis said.

The Montana landowners organization was created to do just that. The 15-member board, representing all the state's tribes, is bringing the legal message to the debate, Reevis said. "We need fighters. We need to stand up."

The organization deals with what Reevis called corruption with oil companies, tribal councils elected by improper methods and expenditures for cattle or land in excess of market value.

Reevis accuses his tribal council on the Blackfeet Nation of paying $1,000 more per head of cattle than it should have for animals that were not full-blooded. He said that money could have gone to the people.

"People are now waking up and fighting back. If we had started fighting this 150 years ago, we wouldn't be in this mess.

"It can't be started by tribal leaders, it has to be the grass-roots people."

Reevis said he advocates doing away with the BIA because "they are not protecting us."