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The close of 2009 saw resolution of a nearly invisible but monumental problem facing America’s first, and one of its most disadvantaged, populations. The settlement of Cobell v. Salazar, a lawsuit initiated 14 years ago by Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet tribal member, community leader and former treasurer of the Blackfeet Nation, is an important step toward righting injustices perpetuated for more than a century.

Private ownership of land was virtually unknown in American Indian culture. U.S. government-sanctioned expansion westward was framed in part by the notion that the “Indian problem” was best dealt with by introducing “among the Indians the customs and pursuits of civilized life and gradually absorb them into the mass of our citizens” (President Chester A. Arthur, 1884). Tribal lands were divided into parcels ranging from 40 to 160 acres, with allotments made to tribal members. Much of the nonallotted land was sold to non-natives at rock-bottom prices in one of our nation’s greatest land grabs, with better than 89 million acres disposed of by the government in this fashion.

Perpetual trust

The United States was mandated, under the Dawes Act (1887), to hold allotted lands in trust for the benefit of tribal members, managing them and investing into individual accounts any funds received. Numerous studies have documented ineptitude and corruption in the management of those funds. Few if any of the beneficiaries have been provided with adequate information about their funds, or have been able to realize any monies from the accounts.

What was initially a 25-year trust evolved into perpetuity, rather than giving tribal members outright ownership when the 25 years expired. What failed to evolve was any system of inheritance. As original “owners” passed on, ownership interests passed on to all heirs in equal undivided shares (wills were uncommon on reservations). A 40-acre allotment in 1890 could now have more than 100 owners. For each new owner, a new trust account would have to be established. As early as 1922, a report from the GAO (now called the Government Accountability Office) found that for 80,000 established parcels, there were at least a million associated ownership interests.

Few home mortgages

Red Feather Development Group works with reservation communities, building energy-efficient homes and training community groups in construction and community development. When we began our work in 1995, we learned about the complicated land issues the hard way. A prospective homeowner might need 100 relatives, some impossible to locate, to sign off on a parcel before she could build a home. With these encumbrances, financing for home construction was difficult, if not impossible, to obtain.

According to a recent article in Indian Country Today, the GAO could only find a record of 97 mortgages extended on the 300-plus reservations around the country from 1992 to 1996. During 2009, 258 mortgages are documented, but in the face of a need for 200,000 housing units on reservations, the improvement in financing options is insignificant.

The settlement will not cure all ills, but it is a symbolic recognition of the injustices done to tribal members over generations and brings much-needed attention to the land problems. I hope this settlement heralds a brighter day, when every American can realize that basic human right of a decent, safe, affordable home.

Robert Young of Bozeman is executive director of Red Feather Development Group, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to partner with American Indian nations to develop and implement sustainable solutions to their housing needs.

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