Lands returning -- A memory of what can be

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Celebration is always in order when Indian people regain control of any
portion of their ancestral lands. In the case of the Confederated Tribes of
the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw of Oregon, the re-tribalized lands
amount to 43 acres, returned after 150 years.

According to Tribal Council Chairman Ron Brainard, the piece of land --
used by the U.S. military since 1884, and formerly known as the Coos Head
Air National Guard Station -- is sacred to the tribe. The federal
government closed the complex in 1996 and now it will become the tribes'
seat of government, and its administrative, court, police, health and
education headquarters. Thirteen vacant buildings, including dormitories,
dining halls and hangars, will be used by the tribe to accommodate its
government and social programs.

The tribes' case has roots in their Treaty of August 1855, which had good
provisions but was unilaterally abrogated by the United States, which then
forced the tribes to relocate at great loss of life and health. The
dishonorable act of dispossession continues to have repercussions. In the
case of the Confederated Tribes -- today 700 strong -- they have operated
under a continuous government since their treaty. The Aboriginal peoples of
Oregon's central coast, they once inhabited the estuaries of Coos Bay and
the Umpqua and Siuslaw rivers.

Based on their calculations of what they have lost, the tribes have their
sights on an 11-acre parcel at Gregory Point, including the Cape Arago
Lighthouse, also once a sacred ceremonial ground. And they appear to have a
workable claim to 67,000 acres of woodlands in the Siuslaw National Forest.

Once an injustice takes place, a remedy is always crucial to restoring
harmony. A tribal people can forget neither its losses, nor its rights.

Terminated as a tribe by Congress in 1956, the confederation was reduced to
a 6.1-acre reservation. Many of its members scattered. However, a strong
core refused to forget they were a people and, in 1984, the Confederated
Tribes were fully restored to federal recognition. Now they rise again and
their land cases are breaking their way.

Again, congratulations to the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua
and Siuslaw of Oregon. We value the resilience of memory needed to pursue
the righting of wrongs, where in the past abrupt, illegal and unilateral
dispossession took place. Whatever use you assign to your rightful
territories, much strength ahead in your pursuit of justice over your
sacred and ancestral lands -- your cherished indigenous geography of
Oregon.

FRACTIONATED HEIRSHIP

Meanwhile, the Interior Department's request for the power to take over
more Indian lands merits a critical eye. So-called "unclaimed" Indian lands
are in question. The Bush administration asks to be released from its trust
responsibility over tens of thousands of individual Indians who, it is
asserted, "can't be located."

Thus Interior prods Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to provide legislative
language giving the federal government power to take such Indian land under
its jurisdiction, pointing out it would save millions of dollars now spent
tracking the many small-account holders. The language, introduced by McCain
in a bill that awaits vote, impacts some 49,000 Indian beneficiaries. The
department is holding an estimated $73.9 million for individual Indians it
does not ever expect to find.

The culprit, 100 years after its design, is the fractionated heirship
policy. At the time, the big Indian lands were subdivided with the idea of
parsing out large swaths of Indian lands for white ownership. But even the
160-acre land parcels that went to heads of Indian families were to be
divided and subdivided equally among new heirs each successive generation.
This imposed federal method of Indian land tenure, which disallowed the
family from making informed and self-reliant decisions about farm and
homestead inheritance, is as good a colonizing and progressive destitution
policy as has ever been devised. Eight generations later, hundreds of
descendants from a single Indian allottee back in the early 20th century
must come to terms over pieces of land -- each just a few square feet in
size. In lieu of agreed-upon Indian planning, the land's administration
passes to Interior.

According to the Tribal Law and Policy Institute: "Under the Indian probate
laws, as individuals died, their property descended to their heirs as
undivided "fractional" interests in the allotment (tenancy in common). In
other words, if an Indian owning a 160-acre allotment died and had four
heirs, the heirs did not inherit 40 acres each. Rather, they each inherited
a one-fourth interest in the entire 160-acre allotment. As the years
passed, fractionation has expanded geometrically to the point where there
are hundreds of thousands of tiny fractional interests."

The consolidation of fractionated Indian lands -- to be held by the tribes
-- and the crafting of a policy to prevent all further fractionalization
are of utmost importance. Attention to land recovery, planning and use is
of crucial significance to sovereign self-government in Indian country.
Interior needs to act in good faith in all these endeavors. Much remains to
be accomplished for justice to be done on the matter of Indian land cases.

One excellent source of information and good counsel on Indian/tribal land
tenancy and use is the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a nonprofit
organization that is "community organized and community directed. The
community includes Indian landowners, Indian people on and off
reservations, Indian land organizations, tribal communities, tribal
governments and others connected to Indian land issues."

The foundation's formidable mission is to ensure that "land within the
original boundaries of every reservation and other areas of high
significance where tribes retain aboriginal interest are under Indian
ownership and management."

We encourage every Indian landowner who wants enriched education about
Indian land management, ownership and transference issues to contact the
foundation. Accurately focused knowledge, as the foundation emphasizes,
"becomes power when decisions about land assets are made."

For more information, contact the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, 151 E.
County Road B2, Little Canada, MN 55117-1523, call (651) 766-8999 or fax
(651) 766-0012, or e-mail info@indianlandtenure.org.