Big Government Gone Wild—How the BIA Helps Corporations Plunder Native Land

Courtesy Leona Gopher / “My grandchildren try to be quiet when I work on my papers,” said Blackfeet tribal member Leona Gopher, with (standing) Dawaunn Wahsise and (seated left to right) Sophia, Naima and Jonathan Soria and Mathius Strong. Gopher has struggled for years to straighten out federally created confusion and low payments related to reservation properties she co-owns.

Big Government Gone Wild—How the BIA Helps Corporations Plunder Native Land

An investigative article by Stephanie Woodard, just published in In These Times magazine, looks into years of exploitative reservation leasing and right-of-way practices that benefit outside entities, from large corporations to individual operators, including farmers and ranchers. In this excerpt, adapted from In These Times, Cris Stainbrook, the Oglala Lakota director of Indian Land Tenure Foundation, realty expert Terry Beckwith, of ICC Indian Enterprises and Quinault Indian Nation, Blackfeet landowner Leona Gopher and retired Cherokee administrative law judge Sally Willett look at mechanisms that prevent landowners from getting fair prices.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs often paves the way for the outside parties to take advantage of Native landowners, who reap few profits from their land. A recent Interior Department report finds, for example, that in 2015, 60 percent of Native landowners earned less than $25 from leasing and other land-related income. Some received as little as a few cents.

Meanwhile, the BIA has confirmed that, astonishingly, it does not tally the total revenue that outside interests generate on reservations. All that is known is that a portion of that value—sales of oil, gas and coal extracted last year—totaled over $5 billion. A major portion of the U.S. economy, along with its contribution to gross domestic product, job creation and more, is simply unknown. For the entire story, go here.

Native landowners are on an uneven playing field when they negotiate with corporations and others, and documents and interviews obtained by In These Times suggest that the Bureau of Indian Affairs does little to level it. While working closely with prospective lessees, the BIA appears to shut out landowners. The agency allows the outside parties to appraise the value of the land or resource they wish to use, which realty expert Terry Beckwith called “a conflict of interest right there.” And when landowners complain of harassment or foul play by those with whom they are negotiating, the BIA may look the other way.

Beckwith gives seminars for Native landowners that help them navigate the leasing process. He said the BIA frequently fails to provide landowners with sufficient information to evaluate offers. At one of Beckwith’s sessions, for example, he saw the oil lease of an attendee from North Dakota’s Bakken region.

“It had a line, his name written under the line and the figure $47,” recalled Beckwith. “So much was missing—terms and conditions, the exact location of the property and more.” He advised the landowner and other attendees with similar documents to rescind their consent and ask for proper agreements.

Blackfeet tribal member Leona Gopher told In These Times about her five-year fight to get the information she needed to assess an oil company’s offer of $1,850, to be shared with 14 co-owners, for a 45-year pipeline right-of-way. The local BIA office told her to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, then set Gopher’s tab for staff time and copying to complete the request at amounts that vacillated, but at one point topped $3,000—money Gopher did not have and that, in fact, well exceeded her portion of the oil company’s offer.

Gopher took the matter to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals (IBIA), the Interior Department’s administrative court for Native claims. The court ordered the BIA to “complete the record.” Gopher’s attorney used the newly completed record to raise objections to the renewal, claiming that the oil company had flouted the rules by rolling three rights of way into a renewal for yet another entity, basing the appraisal on low-value agricultural use of the land, obtaining an insufficient number of landowner consents and more.

Too late, the court told Gopher: The objections should have been raised earlier. The deal went forward, whether she wanted it or not.

Those familiar with the BIA say the difficulty of obtaining information is typical, though unusual anywhere else. “On what planet is a trustee allowed to withhold information from a beneficiary and charge an exorbitant price to find out what the trustee is doing?” asked Judge Willett.

She called this “the mushroom approach”—“cover the principals with manure and keep them in the dark.”

When queried about this problem, BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling claimed that Native landowners need not use FOIA requests to obtain their own “trust data or information.” But landowners Woodard spoke to, BIA documents and IBIA court decisions all revealed that the Freedom of Information Act may well be required to obtain needed documents.

“It’s classic case of big government gone bad,” said Cris Stainbrook, the Oglala Lakota director of Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ITLF), which supports economic development and keeping Native land in Native hands. Federal oversight, the partitioning and selling off of communally held reservations (in large part via the General Allotment Act of 1887) and other federal actions created Native tribes’ and individual landowners’ economic vulnerability. Because of the checkerboard ownership patterns on many Native homelands, just figuring out where to site a housing development can be difficult, said Stainbrook.

Federal buyback programs, through which tribes purchase tribal members’ land, are a controversial attempt to roll back the clock. “A buyback program is a way to undo the allotment process and restore tribal ownership,” explained Stainbrook. “But families who have invested time and effort in their property, then are targeted by a buyback, feel it’s a taking.”

Said Gopher: “We have so many resources on our reservations, so much that others use or take. Yet we also have so much poverty.”

For the rest of this story, go here.

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