Indian Land Tenure Foundation Works to Help Clear Indian-owned Land Titles

January 3, 2013
Example of Undivided Heirship

Example of the Effects of Undivided Heirship

Last month, the Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF) shared its story of a recent victory in protecting a site sacred to the Oceti Sakowin called Pe’ Sla.

ILTF was in the news again recently in a story from Minnesota Public Radio about a U.S. Department of Interior plan to clear up decades of mismanagement of Indian lands with the ultimate goal of returning the control of land to the tribes.

The mismanagement that the plan hopes to correct is “fractionated ownership,” which began when the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, was passed in 1887. The act allowed reservation land to be given to individual Indians. The federal government held the land in trust and each heir of the original landowner was added to the title. According to Cris Stainbrook, president of ILTF, the result is the average parcel of land has 15 owners and it is not uncommon to have a 160- acre parcel with over 1,000 owners.

Fractionated ownership has prevented land development because of cluttered titles or lack of clarity about who owns the land. Land use is compromised because an undivided interest owner must gain consent from a majority of the parcel’s owners to do anything with the land. This makes it nearly impossible for any one of the owners to develop the land for agriculture, business development or a homesite.

To help rectify the situation, the federal government will pay all owners who are willing for their share of a land parcel and turn the land over to the tribes. Unfortunately, there is not enough money to clear all the land titles and the buyback process is expected to take as long as 10 years. Even when the land is owned by the tribe, development is micromanaged and all development efforts have to be approved through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. ILTF is advocating for the tribes themselves to be allowed to help run the program and speed things up.

I encourage you to learn more about Indian land issues on the ILTF website. February 8, 2012 marked the 125-year anniversary of the act. In response ILTF published a video discussing the Dawes Act’s legacy called A Matter of Honor, available on YouTube.

-Kaitlin Ostlie, MCF administrative assistant

Member Post: Pe’ Sla Returns to Oceti Sakowin

December 13, 2012


We hear today on the blog from MCF member Indian Land Tenure Foundation. The foundation shares its story of a recent victory in protecting a site sacred to the Oceti Sakowin — a great example of how philanthropy can successfully help to fight for a community in need.

Last week in Rapid City, South Dakota, full ownership and control of the sacred site Pe’ Sla, located in the Black Hills, was officially returned to the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation). We at Indian Land Tenure Foundation would like to offer our sincere and heartfelt congratulations to the Oceti Sakowin on its return of the control of this sacred site to all the people of the Nation and its relatives today and for all future generations.

It was first announced in August that the land containing Pe’ Sla was going to be auctioned to the highest bidder. The area known as Pe’ Sla by the Lakota is one of five holy sites for the Nation and the only one not on public land. This area is particularly important in that it is the site of the Lakota origin story and star knowledge.

A collaborative effort raised the $9 million purchase price for the 1,942 acre parcel of land. While recognizing that the ownership of this land and the remainder of the Black Hills is still disputed by non-Indians, gaining control of this site was an opportunity too good to pass up and too important not to fight for.

It has truly been an honor for Indian Land Tenure Foundation and Indian Land Capital Company to be a part of this remarkable effort and to work with the Lakota and Dakota nations and other partners over the past few months. Indian Land Capital Company, ILTF’s affiliate lender, was able to provide $900,000 in rapid financing in order to help the tribes secure the initial purchase agreement.

In the end, all of the tribes of the Oceti Sakowin will have contributed time, effort and scarce funds to make this transaction possible. It is anticipated that each tribe will also participate in the oversight and management of the land to ensure its spiritual and cultural values.

As Indian people, we are faced every day with the loss of our sacred lands and the way in which this has impacted our communities, families and cultures. History being what it is, we recognize that our struggle to recover these lands will be difficult and long but we do not accept that these losses are permanent. The return of Pe’ Sla has renewed our spirit. To see so many people willing to support the rights of American Indians and the return of Indian land makes us hopeful that there is a growing number of people that understand the magnitude of what we have lost.

Member Post: Happy Community Foundation Week!

November 14, 2012

November 12 – 18 marks Community Foundation Week in the U.S. Today on the blog, one of MCF’s community foundation members, Indian Land Tenure Foundation, tells us more about community philanthropy and ILTF’s mission as a foundation that supports the American Indian community.

This week, Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF) joins more than 700 community foundations across America for Community Foundation Week to tell the stories of people empowered and communities transformed through philanthropy’s partnership with private and public community leaders and organizations.

Community foundations are independent, public entities that steward philanthropic resources from institutional and individual donors to local nonprofits that are the heart of strong, vibrant communities. They also represent one of the fastest-growing forms of philanthropy.

Every state in the United States is home to at least one community foundation—large and small, urban and rural—that is advancing solutions to a wide range of social issues. The 2011 Columbus Survey, first developed by the Ohio-based Columbus Foundation, found that despite the recession, giving by the nation’s 100 largest community foundations actually increased slightly in 2010 to $3.7 billion and exceeded pre-recession levels seen in 2006 and 2007.

As an American Indian community foundation with a nation-wide focus, ILTF partners with Indian nations, private foundations, government agencies, local businesses, nonprofits and individual donors to strengthen the sovereignty, economies and cultures of Indian communities.

For example, this year, with support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration for Native Americans (ANA) and the Minnesota-based Blandin Foundation, ILTF launched a new three-year initiative, the Minnesota Indian Estate Planning Project.

The project, which addresses generations of misguided federal policy for Indian land and assets, empowers Indian people to take control of their own land assets and plan for their families’ futures. It offers community workshops on the importance of estate planning and free will writing services for tribal members of four Chippewa Bands in Minnesota.

Since 2002, ILTF has invested nearly $20 million in grants and programs that support efforts to return control and management of reservation and culturally important land to Indian people. Visit the ILTF website to see a special 10th anniversary annual report highlighting the organization’s successes from its first 10 years of service in Indian Country.

To learn more about Minnesota’s many community and public foundations, read MCF’s spring 2012 issue of Giving Forum on community philanthropy.

Increasing Economic Control in Native Communities

November 2, 2011

MCF member Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF) is launching a new will writing initiative, the Minnesota Indian Estate Planning Project. This project addresses the loss of economic control many Indian people face when dealing with issues of inheritance.

Current federal laws lead to fractured ownership of Indian land titles. As allotments of land pass down from generation to generation, they are inherited by multiple heirs, and after a few generations one parcel of land can have thousands of undivided interest owners.  Writing a will is one way for Indian landowners to prevent the diminishment of the trust land assets passed on to their heirs.

“This program will help individual Indians and tribal governments more actively and strategically manage their lands,” said Bois Forte Band Chairman Kevin Leecy, who also heads the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council.  “Right now some Indian lands are divided into multiple small parcels, making them difficult to manage effectively.  This program is very much needed to straighten out some long-standing and complicated legal proceedings.”

ILTF was involved in previous will writing projects in 2003 and 2005, and found them to be an excellent use of resources. With new funding secured from the federal Administration for Native Americans, they are now able to offer this service for four Minnesota Indian nations—Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

ILTF is currently in the hiring process for an attorney and a paralegal to staff the project, which gets underway in December 2011. To read more about those positions and about the entire Minnesota Indian Estate Planning Project, visit ILTF’s website.

Using a Website to Make a Complex Issue Less So

September 20, 2010
A snapshot of ILTF's snazzy new site.

Click on the screenshot above to visit ILTF's new, user-friendly site.

None of the issues that grantmakers are tackling is simple, that’s for sure. In fact, it never ceases to amaze me that, just when I think I “understand” poverty or school readiness, for example, another cutting-edge grantmaker and the nonprofits they’re working with teach me about new aspects of an issue and innovative solutions to address them.

While I basically can grasp what an issue encapsulates just by its name (homelessness or health screenings are examples), that was not the case when I went to interview the staff at Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF), a Minnesota Council on Foundations member, for our summer issue of Giving Forum focusing on public policy.

What is Indian land tenure? Indian land issues are complex, and I needed a place to go to learn.  I turned to the foundation’s website. While I was able to gather sufficient information on the issues and strategies so that I could formulate an article on ILTF’s public policy work, what ILTF has just done since – revamping its website – will go miles in educating and impacting its work on Indian land issues.

First, what is Indian Land Tenure Foundation?

In short, ILTF’s mission is to see that “land within the original boundaries of every reservation and other areas of high significance where tribes retain aboriginal interest are in Indian ownership and management.”

According to ILTF, these key points are behind its mission:

  • Overall, less than half of the reservation land in the U.S. is owned and controlled by Indian people. On some reservations, such as White Earth in Minnesota, only a tiny percentage of reservation land is Indian-owned.
  • From 1887 to 1934, more than 90 million acres of reservation land that was guaranteed for the exclusive use and occupation of Indian people were taken out of Indian ownership and control. Only a fraction of those lands have been recovered since then.
  • With each passing generation, Indian communities and families continue to see tribal lands slip out of their control at an alarming rate.

How the New Website Can Help Paint a Picture of This Complex Issue

Here are some of the key features of the site:

  • Learn about the effects of the General Allotment Act of 1887 and the major land issues affecting Indian people today, including land loss, fractionated ownership and checker-boarding.
  • Access information and educational resources on the history of Indian land tenure in the U.S., including an interactive map with data for each reservation that was allotted and free land tenure curriculum for Head Start, K-12 and college.
  • Find information on available grants and search a database of grantees.
  • Read stories about Indian communities recovering their homelands and strengthening their cultures and economies.

“We serve many different audiences from diverse geographic, demographic and cultural communities, so we wanted the new website to be appealing and accessible to everyone,” says Erin Dennis, ILTF’s communications specialist. “While our primary focus is on supporting projects and initiatives that help Indian people and tribes with land recovery and management, we also hope to educate people who may not know very much about these issues. As a community foundation, we rely on contributions from other organizations and individuals to accomplish our goals. To that end, we also hope our website will provide potential partners, donors and funders with an understanding of the importance of addressing these issues now and the positive impact we are making on Indian communities.”

– Chris Murakami Noonan, MCF communications associate

Capacity, Culture, Commitment and Comfort: Finding Public Policy Strategies That Fit Your Foundation

July 20, 2010

How much change can a foundation catalyze by simply – albeit generously – writing checks? Not as much as it could if it also engaged in public policy activities. In fact, public policy work should be viewed as an essential part of a foundation’s efforts, say several members of the Minnesota Council on Foundations.

In our Summer issue of Giving Forum, “Public Policy and Philanthropy: Many Roads Lead to the Same Destination – Change,” John Larsen, trustee and administrator of the John Larsen Foundation, says, “Ultimately, the work of our foundation is about creating real, systemic change, and that can only happen when we start talking to government. Whether you’re a small family foundation like us, or a very large foundation, we all need shifts in public policy in order to achieve really significant lasting social change.”

The challenge is that working to achieve shifts in public policy is often equated with lobbying. And the thought of walking up the steps of the Capitol or testifying before a legislative committee is more than many funders can fathom.

Lobbying, however, is not the sole avenue to influencing public decision making and advocating for causes. Although it is the most recognized public policy engagement tactic, it is only one of 18 distinct policy strategies that Julia Coffman outlines in “A User’s Guide to Advocacy Evaluation Planning,” published by the Harvard Family Research Project.

A “Framework of Public Policy Activities,” which we include in Giving Forum, also includes using electronic outreach and social media, coalition and network building, grassroots organizing, briefings and presentations, polling, pilot projects, research investigating issues and identifying solutions and policymaker education, among others – all of which can impact public decision making, which ultimately shapes policy development, approval and implementation.

A foundation can engage anywhere along the continuum, pursuing those activities that fit its capacity, culture, commitment and comfort levels. A public policy activity that feels right for one foundation may not fit another.

Many foundations choose a combination of strategies, leveraging their resources to: raise awareness of where the public stands on particular issues; bring together divergent points of view to first converse then collaborate; empower community members to advocate on their own behalf by providing technical assistance; increase the capacity of nonprofits to mobilize others; identify messages that resonate with policymakers and the public; determine what would happen if the status quo was allowed to prevail; aggregate what is known already about an issue and put that to work to further discussion; or identify possible solutions and best practices.

These MCF members have each chosen distinct strategies to impact public decision making that fit their capacity, culture, commitment and comfort level. Read more about their work in our just-published Giving Forum:

Lead article:

Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation: An outgrowth of its grantmaking and programmatic activities, community dialogues and business loan work, SMIF’s public policy activities, including building coalition and networks and partnering with the media to draw attention to the issues and how public policy could impact the success the foundation seeks.

The Minneapolis Foundation: As part of the School Readiness Funders Coalition, a group of funders with diverse strengths and abilities in advocacy work, The Minneapolis Foundation brings to the group its ability to lobby and testify at legislative hearings to advocate for the coalitions “Agenda to Achieve Learning Readiness by 2020.”

John Larsen Foundation: When awarding grants supporting work toward LGBT equality, the foundation  considers if educating policymakers is an end goal of the nonprofit’s work and if the organization has a research plan and a track record of communicating those findings to policymakers.

Indian Land Tenure Foundation: Striving to ensure that lands within the original boundaries of reservations is acquired, owned and managed by Indians, the foundation views education about land issues a priority, as well as identification then pursuit of strategies for achieving legal reform.

Women’s Foundation of Minnesota: The explosion of social media has created a new landscape for the foundation to leverage its expertise to educate, engage and broaden its reach to shift attitudes, behaviors and institutions that limit equality for women and girls.

Voices of Philanthropy articles:

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: Identifying partners best qualified to successfully implement strategies and measuring what’s important to guide future initiatives drive the foundation’s advocacy work.

Initiative Foundation: Based on the belief that local people are the key to strengthening communities, the foundation increases civic engagement by providing training, technical assistance, resource referral and grants to help citizen-based teams develop and carry out strategic plans.

While these efforts are diverse, the common thread amongst them is the recognition by these foundations that strategically developing goals to influence public decision making and intentionally engaging in public policy activities and advocacy work can move systems change forward.

– Chris Murakami Noonan, MCF communications associate