WINNEBAGO, Neb. - American Indian tribes fought hard more than 100 years
ago to retain their homelands, only to lose most of them and be moved onto
From the late 19th century, "Indian land" was controlled not by the tribes
or individuals, but by the federal government. American Indians were not
believed capable 120 years ago of handling their own affairs, managing
their lands or developing them to achieve economic benefits through
Now an idea has emerged that could at least return the land held in trust
to the tribes.
The idea was conceived by Lance Morgan, CEO of HoChunk, Inc., who spent a
few months with the BIA as a contract employee in economic development. He
found that the BIA spends so much time on trust land issues that it could
be economically beneficial to the government and tribes if the trust land
was returned to tribal control.
Morgan's idea for the BIA and Department of Interior: get out of the trust
land business. Reverse the racist beliefs of the 19th century and put trust
in the tribes and individuals to manage their own business and their own
Morgan's plan would put the tribes and individuals in charge of the land
that is now held in trust by the federal government and get Interior out of
the trust land business altogether. This, he said, could create wealth for
tribes and individuals, allow American Indians to manage their own
businesses and place tribes on an equal basis with other governments.
Dominant jurisdiction over ..., whether owned by tribal members or not, is
the goal, much the same as counties and states have, Morgan said.
"If this is done right [and] the federal government quits wasting all of
its money managing us, the BIA could morph to be like other government
agencies [which] pass funding through for local programs. It will free up
hundreds of millions of dollars ... Without trust land to manage, the BIA
could just pass the money through to the tribes."
The plan would allow the tribes to create revenue for projects through
taxation if they wish so reservations could eventually become economically
sound. But if tribes don't impose a tax, economic development could still
enhance wealth on reservations with this idea, he said.
"Right now huge portions of our land are not being used. That's holding
everybody back. I would suggest a minimal tax to clear up some of those
issues," he said.
Should the tribes have jurisdiction over their lands, taxation could be
implemented - or not. Morgan said if a small tax were imposed on land, $1
per acre even, some people would not pay and the tribe would then be able
to control that parcel.
He is emphatic that the idea to return trust land to the control of tribes
is separate from the general trust obligation by which the federal
government is bound through treaties and agreements.
At first blush it appears to be a simple process, but Morgan noted that the
idea is filled with pitfalls and black holes, notwithstanding the potential
for a back-door move for termination. He admitted he doesn't have answers
for all the areas that may present a problem.
He said there is a danger of narrowing the focus so much that the idea
becomes overcomplicated, and that a narrow focus could nix the idea because
of one particular situation, one particular tribe or one problem that can't
What bothers him is the fact that trust land is not only a problem for the
BIA, but a detriment for tribes' and individuals' economic development.
Banks shun investments on trust land, corporations back away from
developing businesses and potential individual American Indian
entrepreneurs lack the investment leverage afforded by home and land
"The core idea is sound; all the side issues have to be worked out by
people who are experts in the field. If we are going to turn over land
status that is 120 years old then we sure better get a lot of input,"
The idea is open for discussion: a suggestion has been made to discuss it
at a summit at Harvard if funding is available. Another is to start the
process with a pilot program and allow tribes to opt in or out of it.
Some people who are aware of Morgan's idea fear that economic growth could
bring needs testing out of the closet. "Obviously there is a fear. That's
what happened with gaming: all of a sudden the tribes got money and the
federal government said the tribes shouldn't be able to get federal dollars
"The tribes were successful in stopping that," Morgan said. "There
shouldn't be an economic disincentive for doing better."
Morgan said Department of Interior officials are receptive, and "to their
credit they think this idea should come from Indian country.
"I think we are very capable of coming up with this solution. I don't think
we need to wait for the great white father to come down on high and solve
our problem. We can craft our own solution."