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A Misguided Plan to ‘Privatize’ Native Nation Lands?

“Trump advisors aim to privatize oil-rich Indian reservations” is the headline of a recent Reuters news story by reporter Valerie Volcovici. Her story frames the lands and resources of Native nations as belonging to the United States without explaining the basis for that assumption. Ms. Volcovici writes, for example, “Native American reservations cover just 2 percent of the United States, but they may contain about a fifth of the nation’s oil and gas, along with vast coal reserves.” (emphasis added) The “nation” she is referring to with an apostrophe ‘s’ is obviously the United States.

Ms. Volcovici begins her article by immediately applying the word “nation” to the United States and not to our Native nations. With a couple of minor exceptions, she mostly uses the terms “Native American” and “tribes” instead of “nations.” Furthermore, her use of the possessive tense with an apostrophe ‘s’ suggests that the oil, gas, and coal reserves rightfully belong to the United States and not to our Native nations.

The Reuters story says that a group of people are advising President-elect Donald Trump on Native American issues. They want “to free those [energy] resources from what they call a suffocating federal bureaucracy that holds title to 56 million acres of tribal lands.” While the story clearly asserts that the United States “holds title” to those lands, it does not explain the basis for the United States claiming “title” to the lands of Native nations. We’ll return to this point in a moment.

In any case, a plan has been hatched in some quarters for the Trump administration to provide the opportunity “to put those [Indian] lands into private ownership.” This, says Ms. Volcovici is “a politically explosive idea.” If the plan succeeds, “that could upend more than [a] century of policy designed to preserve Indian tribes on U.S. owned reservations, which are governed by tribal leaders as sovereign nations.”

But clearly something is amiss. What “sovereign nation” anywhere in the world has its land, its territory, “owned” by another nation? The point is emphasized when Ms. Volcovici further says, “The tribes have rights to use the land, but they do not own it.”

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So let’s stop and ask ourselves: Based on what rationale has the United States declared that our Native nations have the right to use the land, but the federal government is the one deemed to own the land? The rationale is, of course, the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination, based on Vatican papal bulls of the fifteenth century and royal charters of England. For some reason this did not end up in Ms. Volovici’s story.
Here’s how that rationale could have been included in her report: “According to federal Indian law, Native nations have rights to use the land, but, as a result of Vatican papal bulls and royal charters of England, as well as the doctrine of Christian discovery and domination in U.S. law, they do not own the land.” Those additional thirty-one words would have added volumes to Ms. Volcovici’s article.

Where is the proposal on the part of those who have formed The Native American Coalition for Trump to get rid of the pernicious doctrine of Christian domination so that our nations have a full right of territory and territorial integrity as full-fledged Nations? For some reason that proposal evidently did not make it into their plan. Elsewhere in her article, Ms. Volcovici stated, “The legal underpinnings for reservations date to treaties made between 1778 and 1871 to end wars between indigenous Indians and European settlers.”

This is skilled writing on her part. Her wording places the focuses on the date of the “legal underpinnings” for Indian reservations, rather than on the legal underpinnings themselves, which, if she bothered to inquire, would circle right back to the papal bulls, the royal charters, and the doctrine of discovery. If the treaties were the basis for the reservations, then there would be a present day match between reservation boundaries and treaty boundaries, which there isn’t.

The article points out that the “privatization” plan is short on details: “Leaders of Trump’s coalition did not provide details of how they propose to allocate ownership of the land or mineral rights—or to ensure they remain under Indian control.” “It has to be done with an eye toward protecting sovereignty,” declared Ross Swimmer, a co-chair of Trump’s advisory coalition, and someone who was once Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. He was previously Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs during the era of President Ronald Reagan, a strange time when Reagan’s U.S. Secretary of Interior, James G. Watt, in 1983, called Indian reservations examples of “failed socialism.”

Use of the word “private” in “privatization,” a term which has been typically used to talk about the “corporatization” of lands and resources, as well as the enclosure of the commons in British history, indicates that the Native American Coalition for Trump does not have the protection of Native nationhood foremost in mind, despite what Swimmer has professed. The question remains: Does this signal the start of another era of Termination or a new Dawes Allotment period which resulted in some 90 million acres moving into non-Indian hands?

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from