Trust Land

Self-governance and tribal sovereignty, in practice, are closely associated with sovereignty over and management of tribal lands. Since the organization was founded in 1944, NCAI has actively supported the restoration of tribal lands. The principal goal of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 was to halt and reverse the abrupt decline in the economic, cultural, governmental, and social well-being of Indian tribes caused by the disastrous federal policy of “allotment” and sale of reservation lands.

Between the years of 1887 and 1934, the US government took more than 90 million acres, nearly two-thirds of all reservation lands, from the tribes without compensation and sold it to settlers. As noted by one of the IRA’s principal authors, Congressman Howard of Nebraska, “the land was theirs under titles guaranteed by treaties and law; and when the government of the United States set up a land policy which, in effect, became a forum of legalized misappropriation of the Indian estate, the government became morally responsible for the damage that has resulted to the Indians from its faithless guardianship” (78 Cong. Rec. 11727-11728, 1934).

Of the 90 million acres of tribal land lost through the allotment process, only about eight percent has been reacquired in trust status since the IRA was passed in 1934. Still today, many tribes have no land base, and many tribes have insufficient lands to support housing and self-government. And the legacy of the allotment policy, which has deeply fractionated heirship of trust lands, means that, for most tribes, far more Indian land passes out of trust than into trust each year.

Most tribal lands will not readily support economic development. Many reservations are located far away from the tribe’s historical, cultural, and sacred areas, as well as from traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering areas. NCAI will continue to advocate strongly for the restoration of tribal lands.

Currently, the ability of the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust for use by Indian tribes is being threatened. The Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar was a broad stroke challenging the Department of the Interior’s land-into-trust authority by reinterpreting the language of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. NCAI will continue to push for legislation that recognizes the rights of all tribes to restore tribal lands.

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