<i>Editors’ note: During the World War II era, the federal government condemned and leased hundreds of thousands of Indian acres for military use, much of it never returned to Indian hands. In this series, Indian Country Today spoke with Native people affected by the takings, many of whom served their country in wartime, lost their land to the government, and still harbor strong feelings on the matter.</i>
WASHINGTON – Indian time is slow. But in Washington they have a well-kept secret: the father of Indian time is “government time.”
Today, much of the Indian estate taken when World War II veterans were still in their teens remains unsafe, unusable, unreturned or simply unremembered.
Some of these lands have been retained for emergency reasons – World War II drifted into the Cold War and Korea, which became Vietnam, which later morphed into the war against terrorism. At places like Camp Gruber in Oklahoma, the emergency that began in the early 1940s has never ended.
The costs to Indian country have been high. Landowners were paid late, in increments, or unfairly; had a hard time repurchasing property in an inflated market; and, if given back an original tract, have struggled to make the best with “dirty land.” Still worse, tribal lands leased to Washington have represented a huge opportunity cost in areas that were already economically depressed.
Even when military land has gone into surplus, Indian interests have been quashed in the federal bureaucracy. The Cherokee were trumped by the state of Oklahoma when part of Gruber reverted to civilian use. The Oglala were outmuscled by the National Park Service in the backyard of their own badlands. In neither case was the BIA a useful ally.
The Navajo have fared better with lands at Fort Wingate depot, albeit 70 years down the road. Soon to be divided between the Navajo and Zuni, some 20,000 acres are at stake.
“We’re not going backwards, so there’s no need for opening these areas for range land use,” said Charlie Davis, a Navajo rancher in the Wingate area. He’d like to see a veterans’ hospital and nursing home on depot land. “It shouldn’t be something we fight on,” he urged. “It’s something we should all have access to,” including veterans of all colors and creeds. “It’s about more than who owns what.”
Annie Yazzie, who herded sheep on Wingate land long ago, agreed. “Who am I to say I want that land returned to me where we’re a growing community here, and we’re crowded? How is that going to help the larger population by stating, ‘This is where I was born. This is where I lived?’”
Uranium mining north of Church Rock has contaminated land with high radon levels, including a flat where the Navajo wanted to build a large housing project. As a result, the Church Rock chapter covets former depot land for housing, provided it can be fully decontaminated.
Yazzie is worried by relatives who want portions of her family’s old land once the depot is handed over, a sentiment echoed by other families concerned that the rush for land may sabotage larger tribal efforts.
The Wingate property must be decontaminated before the BIA can administer it, a process projected, under current funding, to finish in 2012. Eventually, the Navajo hope to put their Wingate lands into trust.
In Oklahoma, no return of land is even imminent. “[Gruber] was the land they could consolidate easiest because Indians were there and it had some logistics value,” said Cherokee Principal Chief Chad Smith. “The surprise with the Camp Gruber episode is that we didn’t have much land left to be taken.”
Repatriation of Gruber land, he admitted, would be messy. “You’re talking two or three generations now. When you start dividing 110-acre parcels among 10 or 15 heirs, it really becomes a practical nightmare. So maybe one of the ways to resolve the moral dilemma is to have the tribe become title holder and put it to some community purpose, Cherokee national purpose.”
Any return of Gruber land to the Cherokee is hypothetical at present.
The Tohono O’odham feel the presence of military neighbors more sharply. By 1943, more than 2 million acres – an area twice the size of Delaware – had been taken for a tactical aviation range, part of it adjacent to their Arizona reservation. The Barry M. Goldwater Range, as it’s known today, trains pilots from around the world in live fire training and simulated battlefield scenarios.
“The nation has expressed an interest in that property,” said Tohono O’odham Chairman Vivien Juan-Saunders. “That property lies within the aboriginal lands of the T.O. Nation. And we’ve not been considered a priority at this point.”
Juan-Saunders did note the military “does make an effort to consult with the nation, there are still outstanding issues with their operations” from several nearby bases, including unexploded ordnance on tribal land, crash landings, sonic booms from over-flights that damage windows and adobe walls, and flight paths that may limit tribal development.
Henry Ramon has been hearing those flights for 60 years. When tribal members demanded compensation for over-flight damage in the 1970s, Ramon, former O’odham vice chairman, said, they settled out of court because “the people just got scared they’d have to pay millions of dollars if they lost the case.” The flights continue over his own village, he said, contrary to negotiated agreement.
But no one has lost more than the Oglala of Pine Ridge. While the tribe negotiates with the park service for return of gunnery range lands out of its control for 60 years, a debate persists about the future. Some would like to see the land developed for cultural tourism. Others want to manage it with a strong conservation ethic.
Once the land is in tribal hands, it may be “like investing in a white elephant,” cautioned Johnson Holy Rock, Oglala elder and former tribal president who has seen many commercial ventures go belly up on Pine Ridge.
Pat Cuny, a rancher whose family was moved off the range in 1942 – and was able to buy the land back later – doesn’t trust the tribal government any more than Washington. “They don’t want to ruin Mother Earth,” he said with a scowl. “Everything’s Mother Earth to them. They’ll ruin it with beer cans, but they don’t want nothing else on it.”
<i>Philip Burnham is the recipient of a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.