In the most recent attempt to strip Indigenous people of the riches buried under their ancestral lands, a new coalition of advisers on Native American issues to President-elect Donald Trump has suggested privatizing tribal lands.
Though there are more than 56 million acres of tribal land currently under the administration of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, each reservation is governed by tribal leaders as sovereign nations. Hundreds of treaties signed between 1778 and 1871 have seen to it that decisions on how to use and allot land rest solely on tribal members.
However, great riches including oil, gas and coal reserves lie underneath the various Indigenous reservations — about 20 percent, in fact, according to a 2008 Bureau of Indian Affairs testimony given before Congress. In 2009, the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, an Indigenous energy consortium, estimated these were worth over US$1.5 trillion.
If Trump’s 27-member Native American Affairs Coalition were to have their way, these lands would be transferred from tribal control to the real estate market, where non-Indigenous people could potentially buy them, something currently prohibited by the BIA.
Though no details have been provided on how land ownership or mineral rights would be allotted, all that’s been proposed by one of Trump’s members is that it be done “with an eye towards protecting sovereignty.” They have also claimed that privatizing tribal lands would help tribes navigate more easily through the thick bureaucratic red tape they face if they want to exploit resources.
Though some tribes have entered into mining and drilling deals with private companies in order to ease the poverty in their communities, they have still failed to fully enjoy the oil and gas boom the region saw over the last decade. Much of that has been the result of poor management by the BIA, which hindered energy development and resulted in lost revenue, a 2015 report from the Government Accountability Office found, according to Reuters.
But that’s hard for many to believe, given Trump’s open support for the North Dakota Access pipeline, whose progress was recently hindered as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers look for alternate routes after months of protest. Trump’s team has already suggested they would do everything they can to reverse that decision.
Indigenous people have also cited previous cases where land-privatization has led to the loss of their sovereignty and culture. One such example was the Dawes Act of 1887, which offered Indigenous peoples private lots in exchange for becoming U.S. citizens. This resulted in more than 90 million acres of land lost between the 1880s and 1930s, Reuters reported.
Members of the coalition team said the finalized proposal could be tabled in Congress by next year.