Things That Matter

Here’s Why Now Is The Perfect Time To Return Native Lands To Their Rightful Caretakers

The federal government has long been a poor caretaker of Native lands. Despite the numerous treaties that the United States has signed with Indigenous tribes over the years, our federal government has often failed to keep up their end of the bargain. Far too often promises aren’t kept and our Native communities are left to suffer. 

Along with the enslavement of Black Americans, this forced land takeover is one of the country’s most significant transgressions. Many of the biggest challenges facing Native communities today, from rampant poverty to lower social and economic mobility to health issues, can be traced to the attempted extermination and then assimilation of Native Americans through American land policy.

Native communities across the country deserve to take back their land.

Several recent high-profile legal cases in the United States have grappled with parts of this legacy. For instance, the Supreme Court ruled in 2020 in McGirt v. Oklahoma that roughly half of Oklahoma’s land lies within the jurisdictional boundary of a Native American reservation. The case was a victory for tribal sovereignty with major consequences for criminal and civil law within the territory. But it stopped short of implicating land issues.

Dozens of tribes across the United States are now pushing for land restoration. Take for example the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in Missouri. After being forced onto a small reservation of their ancestral lands at Fort Berthold in 1870, the government flooded more than a quarter of it. Now, these tribes are bogged down in legal battles just to get the federal government to uphold its former promises.

The nation’s chairman, Marx Fox points out that “We have been marginalized and pushed off our territory and for more than a century the federal government has attempted to steal what their own experts agree is rightfully ours.” 

With Biden’s pick for Interior secretary, the tide could be beginning to turn.

President Joe Biden’s pick for Interior secretary, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) will be responsible for upholding the country’s treaties with Native Americans. Haaland should use her unique position to rectify one of the most damaging early Indian policies of the United States, which sought to break down tribes and assimilate natives: the systematic takeover of native land. 
The United States lags behind many other countries in the Americas in its treatment of indigenous land claims and indigenous legal and political autonomy. Canada has offered official apologies to First Nations and founded a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the legacy of its Indian Residential Schools and provide recommendations to further reconciliation with its indigenous groups. Colombia and Bolivia have granted native communities enormous reserves of lands, and Mexico has given indigenous communities living in ejidos greater self-governance and property rights. Now is the time for the United States to do the same.

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