Locally financed film draws audience to discuss American Indian land issues

Federal legislation contributed to the fragmentation of American Indian land.

Yelena Kibasova

The University’s American Indian Student Cultural Center brought together students, tribe members and interested community members to discuss American Indian land issues.

People gathered Wednesday at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs to watch a film titled “American Indian Homelands: Matters of Truth, Honor and Dignity-Immemorial,” which focused on the current fragmentation of American Indian land because of government legislation.

“It’s a story of federal policy and federal influence on Indian country that most people don’t know,” said Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation of Little Canada, which financed the film.

According to the documentary, all over the United States American Indians own scattered parts of property titles. One piece of property could be owned by several thousand people.

Carly Beane, president of the American Indian Student Cultural Center, said their native land is important to the survival of their cultures.

“How are you going to come together and do something successful with that land Ö economically or otherwise, when there are all these little pieces?” she said.

But this American Indian land issue is very complex and started as far back as 1492, said Howard Valandra, vice president of grants and programs at the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

“What has gone on in the past is still going on today,” he said.

The primary land problems resulted from the General Allotment Act, or Dawes Act, of 1887.

“First the Allotment Act took our land, a lot of land, and then left us with this legacy of undivided interest,” Stainbrook said.

He said that about two-thirds of the tribal land was lost in the allotment process. The leftover land was converted from tribal title to individual title, which resulted in the current “legacy” of fragmented ownership titles.

“These were not good federal policies,” Stainbrook said. “We understand they happened; we’re willing to deal with them. We would just like for them to stop.”

Fortunately, Stainbrook said, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 eventually put an end to the allotment process.

The American Indian Probate Reform Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2004, will go into effect this June.

Stainbrook said the upside of the new act is that the fragmentation issue might see some relief.

“Indian people will write wills and begin consolidating all those small chunks (of land) into bigger ones that they can actually use,” he said.

The documentary outlines past and current land issues American Indians face.

“We don’t have our land,” Beane said. “We do have some land, but throughout history our land has continuously been taken away.”

Valandra said the documentary is an effort to educate.

“The people that we feel should have a basic knowledge of what is happening to Indian people are American people because it’s their Congress Ö our Congress, that is making the rules,” he said.

The documentary explains the importance of the native land on different levels such as political, cultural and spiritual.

“If we can capture this, and we can get people’s voices to tell the story, then hopefully we will enlighten the general public,” Stainbrook said.