March 19, 2009

How to return the Indians' land

Ward Churchill has argued that 1) the US should give the Indians' land back and 2) the Indian nations on this land would protect the non-Native residents' rights. He then explains how the land return could work.

I Am Indigenist

Notes on the Ideology of the Fourth World

By Ward Churchill
Along about 1980, two Rutgers University professors, Frank and Deborah Popper, undertook a comprehensive study of land-use patterns and economy in the Great Plains region. What they discovered is that 110 counties—one quarter of all the counties in the entire Plains region falling within the western portions of the states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, as well as eastern Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico—have been fiscally insolvent since the moment they were taken from native people a century or more ago.

This is an area of about 140,000 square miles, inhabited by a widely dispersed non-Indian population of only around 400,000 attempting to maintain school districts, police and fire departments, road beds and all the other basic accoutrements of "modern life" on the negligible incomes which can be eked from cattle grazing and wheat farming on land which is patently unsuited for both enterprises. The Poppers found that without considerable federal subsidy each and every year none of these counties would ever have been "viable." Nor, on the face of it, will any of them ever be. Bluntly put, the pretense of bringing Euroamerican "civilization" to the Plains represents nothing more than a massive economic burden on the rest of the United States.

What the Poppers proposed on the basis of these findings is that the government cut its perpetual losses by buying out the individual landholdings within the target counties and converting them into open space wildlife sanctuaries known as "Buffalo Commons." The whole area would in effect be turned back to the bison which were very nearly exterminated by Phil Sheridan's buffalo hunters back in the nineteenth century as a means of starving "recalcitrant" Indians into submission. The result would, they argue, be both environmentally and economically beneficial to the nation as a whole.

It is instructive that such thinking has gained increasing credibility and support from Indians and non-Indians alike, beginning in the second half of the 1980s. Another chuckle here: Indians have been trying to tell non-Indians that this would be the outcome of fencing in the Plains ever since 1850 or so, but some folks have a real hard time catching on. Anyway, it is entirely possible that we will see some actual motion in this direction over the next few years.

So, let us take the Poppers' idea to its next logical step. There are another hundred or so economically marginal counties adjoining the "perpetual red ink" counties already identified. These do not represent an actual drain on the U.S. economy, but they do not contribute much either. They could be "written off" and lumped into the Buffalo Commons with no one feeling any ill effects whatsoever. Now add in adjacent areas like the national grasslands in Wyoming, the national forest and parklands in the Black Hills, extraneous military reservations like Ellsworth Air Force Base, and existing Indian reservations. This would be a huge territory lying east of Denver, west of Lawrence, Kansas, and extending from the Canadian border to southern Texas, all of it "outside the loop" of U.S. business as usual. The bulk of this area is unceded territory owned by the Lakota, Pawnee, Arikara, Hidatsa, Crow, Shoshone, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache nations. There would be little cost to the United States, and virtually no arbitrary dispossession or dislocation of non-Indians if the entire Commons were restored to these peoples. Further, it would establish a concrete basis from which genuine expressions of indigenous self-determination could begin to reemerge on this continent, allowing the indigenous nations involved to begin the process of reconstituting themselves socially and politically and to recreate their traditional economies in ways that make contemporary sense. This would provide alternative socioeconomic models for possible adaptation by non-Indians and alleviate a range of considerable costs to the public treasury incurred by keeping the Indians in question in a state of abject and permanent dependency.

Critics will undoubtedly pounce upon the fact that an appreciable portion of the Buffalo Commons area I have sketched out—perhaps a million acres or so—lies outside the boundaries of unceded territory. That is the basis for the sorts of multilateral negotiations between the United States and indigenous nations I mentioned earlier. This land will need to be "charged off" in some fashion against unceded land elsewhere and in such a way as to bring other native peoples into the mix. The Poncas, Omahas, and Osages, whose traditional territories fall within the area in question, come immediately to mind, but this would extend as well to all native peoples willing to exchange land claims somewhere else for actual acreage in this locale. The idea is to consolidate a distinct indigenous territory while providing a definable landbase to as many different Indian nations as possible in the process.
Comment:  This idea is much grander in scope than Russell Means's Republic of Lakotah and therefore much less likely to happen. In fact, it's guaranteed not to happen. Non-Natives fight tooth-and-nail against tribes when they try to take even small amounts of land into trust. And the courts increasingly have taken the non-Natives' side in land disputes.

So Churchill's proposal is a fun little fantasy. But I find it useful as a talking point.

I can't tell you how many times I've written, "If you don't want to uphold the Indians' treaties, give them their land back." I considered this a mere rhetorical flourish, not a serious argument.

But if someone says, "That's impossible," now I can respond, "No, it's eminently possible. See How to Return the Indians' Land for an explanation of how it could work. You may not like this option, but it's perfectly doable in theory."

In other words, I'm calling you on your attempt to weasel out of the legally binding treaties. If that's your goal, let's discuss the real alternative. If you refuse to discuss either option, you're a hypocrite and a fraud. You don't care about justice or the "rule of law." You're nothing but a spoiled baby who wants it all.

For more of Churchill's thoughts on indigenism, see:

Only one Indian civilization?
Churchill the indigenist

Disclaimer:  Nothing in this posting is meant to support any of Churchill's words or deeds except the words noted here.

Below:  "2000 U.S. population density in persons per sq. mile: yellow 1-4, light green, 5-9." Wow...almost half the US is practically empty. Look at all the land we could give back without affecting most Americans.


Anonymous said...

Anyone interested in more information about the Buffalo Commons should look at my Rutgers website, I and my wife, Deborah Popper, a geographer at the College of Staten Island/City University of New York and Princeton University, originated the concept. The Great Plains Restoration Council, based in Fort Worth, is a national organization specifically devoted to creating the Buffalo Commons. It is at, and its president is Jarid Manos. Best wishes,
Frank Popper
Rutgers and Princeton Universities
732-932-4009, X689

kalisetsi said...

LMAO. Frankly, many Indian nations of today have some work to do first in protecting their OWN citizens rights! Not to mention other Native residents' rights. And I'm pretty sure that non-Native residents' rights aren't going to be prioritized above the aforementioned groups. I don't want to throw tribal governments under the tire, but certainly they shouldn't generally be seen naively through rose-colored glasses. Cool fairy tale though, Ward ;)

Rob said...

This posting isn't about whether tribal governments would protect non-Native rights, Kalisetsi. It's about the possibility of exchanging land so tribal governments could exercise true sovereignty.

Whether these truly sovereign governments would be democratic or not is a separate issue. See No Prejudice Among Indians? for more on this point.

P.S. Thanks for writing, Frank. You must have a Google Alert on "Buffalo Commons" or something. <g>

kalisetsi said...

I'm well aware what the post is about. My comment is on your intro, which clearly included Ward Churchill's argument that [post land-exchange] "2) the Indian nations on this land would protect the non-Native residents' rights." I'm actually not sure why you thought it was necessary to include the second part of his argument in this particular post; particularly not if you don't intend for anyone to comment on it.

Rob said...

The introduction was intended to give this posting context. It wasn't intended as something that merited a response in its own right.

Ideally, people should stick to the subject at hand rather than digressing. Comments on related postings should go on those postings.

I note this because when one person goes off-track, other people tend to follow. It's my job as moderator to keep things on track.

But it's not a big deal. Feel free to comment on whatever you want--as long as it's somewhat related and not a personal attack. <g>

kalisetsi said...

Fair enough. Duly noted ;)