A Misguided Plan to ‘Privatize’ Native Nation Lands?

Trump administration plans “to put ... [Indian] lands into private ownership”

“Trump advisors aim to privatize oil-rich Indian reservations” is the headline of a recent Reuters news story by reporter Valerie Volcovici. Her story frames the lands and resources of Native nations as belonging to the United States without explaining the basis for that assumption. Ms. Volcovici writes, for example, “Native American reservations cover just 2 percent of the United States, but they may contain about a fifth of the nation’s oil and gas, along with vast coal reserves.” (emphasis added) The “nation” she is referring to with an apostrophe ‘s’ is obviously the United States.

Ms. Volcovici begins her article by immediately applying the word “nation” to the United States and not to our Native nations. With a couple of minor exceptions, she mostly uses the terms “Native American” and “tribes” instead of “nations.” Furthermore, her use of the possessive tense with an apostrophe ‘s’ suggests that the oil, gas, and coal reserves rightfully belong to the United States and not to our Native nations.

The Reuters story says that a group of people are advising President-elect Donald Trump on Native American issues. They want “to free those [energy] resources from what they call a suffocating federal bureaucracy that holds title to 56 million acres of tribal lands.” While the story clearly asserts that the United States “holds title” to those lands, it does not explain the basis for the United States claiming “title” to the lands of Native nations. We’ll return to this point in a moment.

In any case, a plan has been hatched in some quarters for the Trump administration to provide the opportunity “to put those [Indian] lands into private ownership.” This, says Ms. Volcovici is “a politically explosive idea.” If the plan succeeds, “that could upend more than [a] century of policy designed to preserve Indian tribes on U.S. owned reservations, which are governed by tribal leaders as sovereign nations.”

But clearly something is amiss. What “sovereign nation” anywhere in the world has its land, its territory, “owned” by another nation? The point is emphasized when Ms. Volcovici further says, “The tribes have rights to use the land, but they do not own it.”

So let’s stop and ask ourselves: Based on what rationale has the United States declared that our Native nations have the right to use the land, but the federal government is the one deemed to own the land? The rationale is, of course, the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination, based on Vatican papal bulls of the fifteenth century and royal charters of England. For some reason this did not end up in Ms. Volovici’s story.