Note: A front-page editor's note and a sidebar titled "A banker battles to hold the government accountable" accompany this feature story.
FORT HALL, Idaho - The councilman's voice drones through the microphone, echoing off walls lined with nickel slots and joker poker games. The Shoshone and Bannock people file into the bingo hall slowly, some wearing tight jeans and cowboy hats, others sporting baggy gangsta pants and T-shirts rolled up at the sleeves. Children chase each other through the aisles as parents settle into seats for the tribes' annual meeting in May.
A hand shoots up in the crowd, and a woman stands. "This is not a council meeting," she yells, asking the elected official at the microphone to have a seat. "This is the people's time to talk."
The people have plenty to say. When the meeting closes 10 hours later, they have voted to fire the chairman of the tribal business council and the editor of the Sho-Ban News, the reservation newspaper, and asked the tribal council to oust three local staff members of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The votes are only recommendations and the council will make the final decisions later this summer. But a storm is brewing on the Fort Hall Reservation.
One of the forces behind the tumult is Ernestine Werelus, a 69-year-old Shoshone woman who grew up raising cattle and quarter horses along the Snake River west of town. She left the reservation for 30 years to work as a dentist with the Indian Health Service. She returned to Fort Hall four years ago to retire.
But what Werelus found here wouldn't let her rest. Mormon potato farmers and the Bureau of Indian Affairs were holding down the 4,500 Sho-Bans, she says. While an acre of prime potato land off the reservation was going for $150 to $200 per year, the Bureau was renting out Indian land for as low as $50. On a reservation of a half-million acres, that amounted to millions of dollars lost each year - money that should have gone to people whose unemployment rate swings from 20 to 50 percent with the seasons, and who are lucky to make $8 an hour.
Werelus decided to act. She pulled together volunteers to run a nonprofit called the Fort Hall Landowners Alliance, to teach people how to gain control of their land. With the permission of the landowners, she bypassed the bureau officials who had been negotiating the leases, and started driving hard deals with farmers who rent land on the reservation. She and her team appealed leases they thought unfair.
Now, two years later, the alliance has 300 members, and a sample of 19 leases it helped negotiate shows yearly rates jumping from between $55 and $80 per acre to as high as $130. Over the five-year life of the sample leases, landowners will earn $4.7 million, almost twice what they would have made under their old leases.
"The tribe said, 'Your lease rates are too high,'" says Werelus. "'You're going to run off these farmers.'" And in fact, a few farmers have backed out of deals, leaving land fallow, but the rest have agreed to pay more.
The alliance's success has been a boost for the Sho-Bans. It also helped convince those attending the annual meeting that they want several bureau officials out of Fort Hall.
The changes at Fort Hall are important of themselves. A group of Indians in Idaho is moving step-by-step to take back control of their land. But Fort Hall is also important because it is not unique. Across the West, Indian people are in the early stages of a long-term revolution.
This is not a revolution that attracts headlines, like the sit-ins and confrontations of the 1960s. Rather than armed takeovers and battle cries, this revolution is made up of soil surveys, changes in the laws governing land inheritance, the control of capital and negotiations over leases. The revolution is both political and economic, and it promises to change the face of Indian country.
A legacy of abuse
Between the Fort Hall tribal office building, where the Landowners Alliance does business, and the railroad tracks that carry trainloads of potatoes off the reservation, stands a low, mustard-yellow building. The structure is the headquarters of the local Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency that critics say has stood between the Sho-Bans and their land for over a century.
"We try and inform them (landowners) as much as we can" about leasing land on the reservation, says the bureau's senior soil scientist Norman Bird. "We have an open door policy."
But Sho-Bans and other bureau staffers say Bird, a non-Indian and a Mormon from Blackfoot, Idaho, and other officials hold the door open for farmers, but not for Indians. They charge that the bureau has deprived Sho-Bans of millions of dollars by leasing Indian land for bargain-basement prices. They also charge that the agency has permitted farmers whose leases have expired to continue to farm, and allowed others to sublease land for more than they are paying its Indian owners.
It is no secret that the bureau has also allowed farmers to pass sweetheart deals on to their children and friends. Some land on Fort Hall is being worked by the third generation of the same non-Indian families.
"I've had farmers say to me, 'It's not your land. It belongs to the federal government,'" says Ernestine Werelus. "Some of these people think the land belongs to them."
There are bureau staffers who see the problems, too, but they will only speak anonymously. "We're supposed to get the best price for their ground," says one agency official. "But we're not doing it. We're looking out for the farmers and the Mormon church."
As an example, he points to a 10-year lease on 3000 acres of potato land on the reservation. The original lease, signed with non-Indian farmer Chris Thompson in 1990 for $60 per acre each year, came up for review in 1994. A second farmer, Chris Drakos, offered the bureau $130 per acre for the land, apparently thinking the agency could drop its lease with Chris Thompson. But the bureau stuck with Thompson, raising the rate to just $70 an acre.
"It was a fair price" in 1990, says Thompson, who acknowledges Drakos made a higher offer. But Thompson says his lease still had five years to run. Drakos refused to comment on the lease, but bureau officials say the $130 offer never existed. "Chris Drakos did not submit a bid," says Superintendent Eric LaPointe. "There was no lease to be had."
But the anonymous agency staffer says the bureau knew it could get $130 for the land, and by refusing to raise the lease rate to reflect the land's value, the bureau lost landowners almost $1 million. "That's one farm. The people and the tribe are getting screwed out of millions and millions and millions," he says. "Every one of these Indians should be living high on the hog. They shouldn't be living in shacks."
In another instance, he points to a potato storage facility Chris Thompson leases for $3,000 a year. Thompson subleases the facility to another farmer, Dick Watt, pulling in up to $16,500 that should go to the Indians who own the land. Thompson says the profits go to maintaining the facilities, and that the bureau approved the sublease 15 years ago. Bureau Superintendent LaPointe says he can find no such approval in his records.
These and other problems have been pointed out numerous times by landowners and bureau officials, but reports have generally been "shoved under the blankets," according to staffers.
Eric LaPointe says that the bureau is doing all it can with limited resources. "I've got three staff members to cover a half-million acres, and Congress says that's enough," he says. "We rely on the tribe's staff to report abuses to us. We're just the referee."
The real problem, says the bureau's Norman Bird, is that farmers are reluctant to get into business in Indian country. "When (critics) say there's just a whole horde of people over here just waiting for the next bid," says Bird, "we just haven't seen that."
Under former Fort Hall superintendent Dennis Whiteman, the bureau updated its soil and crop yield information for the first time in three decades, so that farmers who had no experience with the land could make informed bids. The bureau also began advertising leases in local newspapers and farm stores. Last year, the agency started a new bidding process, and rent prices are rising.
But the alliance's ability to get more money for leases seems to show that the bureau could be doing more. "People are willing to pay good money for the land out here," says another agency staffer. "Even the (non-Indian farmers') hired help is driving new pick-ups. The Indians say, 'They're getting rich on our land and the Indians are just barely scraping the bottom of the bowl.' "
"Yeah, I am driving a new truck. I am doing pretty well," says Garth VanOrden, a 23-year veteran of Fort Hall spud farming, as he wheels his pickup through fields of spring wheat and potatoes. But farming is no way to get rich, he adds.
As the spokesman for the Fort Hall Lease Holders, a group of 50 non-Indian farmers who work on the reservation, VanOrden is seen by many Indian landowners as the voice of the enemy. "Their mindset right now is, 'you're screwing us, you're screwing us,'" he says. "Sometimes I feel like I have to apologize for Columbus."
VanOrden acknowledges that there are farmers who abuse the system, but he says Indians need to realize that farming on the reservation is more expensive and time-consuming than it is elsewhere. Land on the reservation is not always equipped with irrigation systems provided on private land, and Indian land is usually owned by more than one individual. "When I lease land off the reservation, I'm dealing with one person," he says. "On the reservation, I'm dealing with tracts of land with over 100 owners."
When VanOrden puts $44,000 into a new center-pivot irrigation system, he and his bank need to know he will be able to use it for 20 years. But multiple owners and five-year leases lead to uncertainty. The tribes require the farmers to rotate potatoes with wheat at least every other year to keep the soil healthy, he says. That means that in a five-year lease, VanOrden may only have two years of spuds, his money-making crop.
"If it's so tough, why am I out here? It's good productive land and we've learned how to farm it," he says. "To be honest with you, it's the only thing I know how to do, and I have a shitload of money invested in it.
"It's in the landowner's best interest to have income and it's in the farmer's best interest to have satisfied landowners. That's just sound business," says VanOrden. "But it goes both ways."
Still, as Sho-Bans get more involved in managing their lands, they are going to shake things up on the reservation, and everyone - farmers, landowners and the bureau alike - had better be ready.
"Change is always scary," says VanOrden, "but in the end the result can be good. This is the Indian people's land and at some point they need to decide for themselves what they want from it."
The Dawes Act: dismantling Indian country
Control of the land has been beyond the reach of many Indians for over a century, thanks in large part to a grand plan by the federal government in the late 1800s to turn Indians into civilized landowners.
Under the original treaties and agreements signed with the federal government in the 1800s, reservations were owned communally. But Christian reformers, led by U.S. Sen. Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, saw the reservation system as racial segregation that reduced Indians to paupers. Their answer was to dissolve the reservations and distribute land to individual Indians. Private ownership, they reasoned, would also ensure Indians a place of their own, safe from encroachment by homesteaders and miners, who continuously tried to move in on Indian lands.
"If you will prepare the Indian to take care of himself upon this land that is allotted, you will find the solution to the whole question," Dawes told a gathering of the liberal Christian group Friends of the Indians in 1886. "He shall have a home and be a citizen of the United States, shall be one of us."
His centerpiece was the 1887 General Allotment Act, or the "Dawes Act," that authorized the president to survey Indian lands and assign farm plots to individual Indians. Married couples received a quarter-section, or 160 acres, single adults got 80 acres, and children 40 acres.
But instead of bringing Native Americans into contact with the land, the law drove them away from it. When reservations were divided, government agents gave some Indians land that could never be irrigated, much less farmed. Family members might be allotted tracts on opposite ends of reservations.
Once each Indian was given an allotment, the Interior secretary bought "surplus' reservation land - sometimes the most desirable land on the reservation - and opened it to non-Indian homesteaders or railroad companies. The practice led to "land runs," where white settlers lined up at reservation boundaries to wait for the official gunshot signifying the opening of new territory for settlement.
Accompanying the settlers' hunger for land was the fact that not all Indians wanted to be farmers. Within four years of the Dawes Act, the Department of the Interior, which held Indian land in trust, was leasing allotted lands to non-Indians. Over the years, many Indians sold their allotments to non-Indians. Others were cheated out of their land, creating islands of private "fee" land within reservation boundaries.
John Collier, commissioner of Indian affairs under President Franklin Roosevelt, ended the allotment system by convincing Congress to pass the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. But much damage had already been done. When Congress passed the Dawes Act in 1887, there had been 138 million acres of Indian land in the United States. By 1934, that number had plummeted 65 percent, to 48 million acres.
A promise dissolves
The erosion of Indian land ownership didn't stop with the end of the allotment system. Because Native Americans had no written wills, the Dawes Act set up inheritance codes. When the owner of a piece of land died, the Bureau of Indian Affairs kept the land physically intact, but divided it on paper by giving each heir an "undivided" interest in it.
The inheritance rules were the undoing of Dawes' promise of private land and a home Indians could call their own. As Indians died and their property was passed on, the number of owners increased exponentially. Today, many parcels of land have hundreds of owners spread around the country. Intermarriage between tribes means Indians often inherit interest in land on several reservations.
With each passing generation, Indian ownership in land washes out like an arroyo in a spring flood. And as the gully between Indians and their land widens, Indian people depend more on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which today acts as the trustee of the current 55 million acres of Indian land.
In order to grow potatoes, build a home or sell an interest in fractionated land, an individual needs permission from a majority of the others who own interest in the land. Consensus is tough when there are only a few owners, and nearly impossible when there are a hundred owners, whose addresses and phone numbers are kept secret from each other by the bureau under the Privacy Act.
"You basically can't do anything with Indian land without getting through a maze of federal regulations," says Theresa Carmody, a member of the Seneca tribe and an expert on Indian land tenure from Wagon Mound, N.M.
Critics say the system is designed to be abused. As fractionated ownership pushes Indians farther from their land, the bureau hears little from landowners, but plenty from the non-Indian farmers who lease the land. Naturally, the bureau tries to keep farmers and other lessees happy, says Carmody.
"The system is not in place to empower" Native American landowners, says Carmody, who has worked for the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C. and the Boulder, Colo.-based Native American Rights Fund. "The system is in place to lease."
The numbers support her charge: Non-Indians lease 70 percent of all Indian agricultural land, according to a 1990 bureau report.
Because Indians are cut off from their land, most reservations remain economic colonies, where the Bureau of Indian Affairs manages land and resources, and non-Indians reap the profits.
One of the major problems is a lack of access to capital. Banks are reluctant to lend money to Indians on reservations, where clear title to land is rare, and where repossessing property may be impossible under tribal laws.
As a result, says John Halliday, director of economic development for the Muckleshoot Tribe in Washington, banks have given only 93 conventional home loans in all of Indian country in the last 15 years. Halliday calls the situation "organized poverty - the most violent kind of racism there is."
A groundswell of change
The federal government has tried several times to remedy fractionated ownership, but its solutions have strengthened tribal governments at the expense of individual landowners. One 1983 bill even declared interests of less than 2 percent of an allotment worthless, and turned them over to the tribes. The Supreme Court later found the "2 percent rule" unconstitutional.
But a growing community of Native Americans is not waiting for the federal government to solve its problems. Some, like Ernestine Werelus in Fort Hall, are tackling the bureau head on, fighting for a voice in the way land is managed and leased. Others are helping Indian people reduce the number of landowners by writing wills and by buying and trading fractionated interests. Some tribes have adopted codes that only allow tribal members to inherit land on their reservations, while others are pushing banks to start lending money in Indian country.
Scattered efforts like these have flared up in the past, but they never caught on at the national level. Now, the movement is spreading. Tribes are organizing, exchanging ideas and building viable economies on Indian reservations while trying to maintain their cultures and autonomy.
One of the pioneers is Helen Sanders, a member of the Quinault Tribe in Washington state. Sanders got involved in the fight over Indian land in the late 1950s, when her daughter inherited forest land. At the time, two non-Indian timber companies controlled logging on the reservation. Indians knew they were getting the short end of the deal, but few had the funds or the patience to do anything about it.
"It was common gossip among loggers that the Indians were getting beat out of their timber," says Sanders.
Rather than have the bureau sell the timber on her daughter's land, Sanders decided to go into the logging business. It took her years to navigate the bureaucratic obstacles, but she succeeded. With the help of a new bureau superintendent, she convinced the federal Small Business Administration to guarantee a start-up loan. Her daughter's land and that first loan were enough to get her business up and running, and from there she moved to other Quinault land. For 12 years, Sanders worked one allotment at a time, borrowing money to pay the lease and pull the timber off the land, and then repaying her loan with the proceeds.
In the process, Sanders discovered that the bureau had been selling off not just timber but Indian land as well. She took what she had learned from her business and put it to work for her people. With the help of the bureau superintendent, she stopped the sales to non-Indian timber companies, and in 1971, she sued the bureau for mismanaging the timber resources. Twenty years later, she settled out of court for $26 million, which went to her fellow landowners.
"It takes a lot of footwork and a lot of determination," says Sanders, now a leading voice for Indian lands on the national level. "Many of our people just don't know how to fight the battle. They get two doors closed on them and they give up."
Sanders had what most people lack: the fortitude to force her way past a dozen closed doors. Now, on the Umatilla Reservation in northeast Oregon, the tribal government is trying to open some of those doors for the people.
It's a huge job, akin to turning an omelet back into whole eggs. Twenty thousand people own interest in the 1,400 allotments on the Umatilla Reservation, and most owners belong to other tribes. Predictably, the bureau controls most of the land and it leases 95 percent of it to non-Indian wheat farmers. Most Indian landowners didn't even know where their property was or who their fellow owners were.
They would have been hard pressed to find out. Records showing who owned the land, who was leasing it, and what the land was capable of producing were scattered everywhere: in filing cabinets and computers of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in tribal offices and in the Umatilla County courthouse.
Landowners could do nothing, because they knew nothing.
"We needed to get people information," says retired Indian rancher Bill Northover. "A lot of these people don't want to live in the projects (federally funded housing developments). They want to build themselves a home out there in the country (on land they own). They know that their land is worth something, and they want to get more information about what they own so they can get the most out of it."
In 1990, a foundation helped the tribes begin to pull together scattered land records and to put them in a computer database. Armed with additional money from a new casino, a golf course and a hotel, the tribes bought a geographic information system (GIS) computer program. Northover and the tribes' Land Acquisition Program are putting the tribes back in the driver's seat.
Indians who want to sell or trade interests for a piece of land all their own can now get up-to-date information quickly. The new computer system has also allowed the tribes to start buying back lands that were lost to homesteading and sales. Last year, they bought more than 7,000 acres.
"It's a very powerful tool," says Northover. "With GIS, we can go out and get our own data. We don't have to wait for the bureau."
Other tribes have caught on. In the Northwest, the Yakama, Warm Springs, Coeur d'Alene and other tribes are all working on geographic information system programs, and in the Dakotas, reservations such as Pine Ridge are jumping on board.
The key to success, says Northover, is to develop a good working relationship with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "The BIA is a bastard. But it's a powerful bastard and we have to work with it."
The bureau doesn't need to have any part in it, says CloAnn Villegas, computer systems manager for the Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. The Salish and Kootenai are miles ahead of most tribes in building a nation independent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They have developed a sophisticated legal system, and fought to protect water quality in Flathead Lake, as well as managing fishing and bird hunting cooperatively with the state of Montana.
For years, the tribes felt that the bureau and non-Indian farmers were managing the land without their consent. The agency had no data on what the soil could produce or how many cattle a piece of land could support. Officials didn't review leases regularly, and some farmers and businesses had been paying the same rates for 25 years.
In the 1980s, with coffers full from timber sales and a federal contract on a dam on Flathead Lake, the tribes decided they'd had enough of the bureau. They used the 1975 Indian Self Determination and Educational Assistance Act to take over management of the irrigation canal system on the reservation. In 1990, they contracted the bureau's real estate services, which include agricultural, weed and mineral management, as well as leasing and billing.
Last year, the tribes gathered up the title records to all their land. "We backed a U-Haul up to the Portland area office and took all of our title plans," says Villegas, an accountant by training and "a techie by default." Today, there are only two bureau officials left on Flathead.
After eight years, three computer programmers and $80,000, she has a remarkable new billing program and the groundwork laid for a geographic information system.
Despite the achievement, the Salish and Kootenai now realize they may have bitten off more than they can chew. They ousted one bureaucracy but had to create another.
Their beefed-up staff is putting the paperwork in order, an expensive task. At the same time, they have less money to work with because lease rates have dropped since the tribe took over. Says Villegas: Indians now get top priority on leases on the reservation, even if they can't pay as much as non-Indians.
The tribe instead of the bureau now compiles the environmental studies required under the National Environmental Policy Act, a time-consuming process that has reduced the amount of timber the tribes can sell.
"The (bureau) was always understaffed," says Villegas. "We've put the bodies in place. We just need to make sure we have the money to get the job done."
Looking out for the tribe
In South Dakota, the Rosebud Sioux are attempting to strike a different balance between Indian empowerment and cash flow, perhaps because the man leading the charge, Howard Valandra, once ran a national computing business.
Valandra is the uncompromising chairman of the Tribal Land Enterprise, which has survived for 55 years, with ups and downs, in the fourth poorest county in the nation, where kids often go to school just for the free meals.
When Valandra joined the board in 1993, the land enterprise already had control of roughly 700,000 acres on the Rosebud Reservation, but it wasn't getting rates much better than the bureau would have. Valandra and his team at the enterprise started raising lease rates. In response, farmers organized and started using "fear tactics," he says. "They said if you drive leases up, we're not going to lease your land."
Instead of giving in, the enterprise built up a war chest big enough to survive without leasing any land for two years. The board then told the farmers that if they didn't pay fair market value, the tribe would take its land out of circulation completely.
"Banks, production credit, the Small Business Administration would go broke. Anybody who has lent a penny to anybody in Indian country would feel it," he says. "Individuals (farmers) who think they need to be subsidized need to realize those days are dwindling fast."
The enterprise has been known to retaliate against farmers who speak out against the tribe at public meetings by raising their lease rates. It is common knowledge among farmers on Rosebud: now if you're going to do business here, you'll do it by the Indians' rules.
The enterprise buys between 5,500 and 6,000 acres each year. Individuals can also trade scattered interest in land for a parcel of tribal land where they can build a home. And staffers are working to allow Rosebud members who own interest on the nearby Pine Ridge reservation to trade with Pine Ridge residents who own interest on Rosebud.
But the enterprise is equally firm with its own people. When a landowner trades interest for a piece of tribal land, the land remains in tribal ownership so it can't be sold to non-Indians. And before a deal is final, the owner must name a single Rosebud Sioux heir to the land to stop fractionation.
Some landowner groups "look out for the individuals," says Valandra. "We look out for the tribe."
Points of intersection
No one solution will work for every tribe, but a meeting held in Pendleton, Ore., in 1991 started a collective push to address Indian land ownership on a national level. Helen Sanders, Theresa Carmody and Bill Northover were among 150 people from 36 tribes who showed up for the first annual Indian Land Consolidation Conference.
The ad hoc committee that grew out of the conference, now called the Indian Land Working Group and chaired by Howard Valandra, launched a national crusade to give Indian people the information and resources they need to regain control of their land. Made up of roughly 30 representatives of tribal governments and landowners alliances, and individual activists, the group is making waves around Indian country.
Its annual conferences are attended by hundreds of people, and it has a Web page, informational videos and a several thousand-member mailing list.
"We've developed a pretty strong network," says Theresa Carmody, the New Mexico Indian activist who is now the working group's secretary/ treasurer. "If something happens at Fort Hall, Rosebud, Quinault, we know about it."
In addition to its work on reservations, the group has put a bill before Congress to address fractionated ownership on the national level. The bill, introduced in the House in July, would provide funds to teach people about estate planning and assure their access to land records. It would also tear down bureaucratic barriers by allowing landowners to sell or exchange interest with other Indians without going through the bureau.
"The only restriction we want is if you're going to sell, sell to another Indian," says Carmody. "Other than that, let people buy, sell, anything they want to do." The bill also includes a strict inheritance code for tribes that haven't developed their own, preventing non-Indians from inheriting Indian land.
Like a similar bill put forth by the Interior department, the Working Group's bill would set up an acquisition fund to buy up interest in land and consolidate ownership. But where the government's bill would give the Interior secretary control over the fund, the working group's bill would provide loans to tribes and individuals and leave the decisions to them.
It is only by putting power back in the hands of individual Indians that Interior can bridge the chasm that has opened between Indians and their land, says Theresa Carmody. "As Indian landowners become more knowledgeable, they're going to demand that they can get involved.
"We see it happening gradually. The road is long and there are still some real barriers out there, but that's life," says Carmody. "It took 100 years to get this way and it's not going to change overnight.
"A sense within people of self-sufficiency and strength is coming back," she says. "We've hit bottom and now we're on the upswing."
This report was made possible by a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
* Fort Hall Bureau of Indian Affairs Superintendent Eric LaPointe, 208/238-2301;
* The Fort Hall Landowners Alliance, 208/238-3960;
* The Indian Land Working Group, 505/668-9013;
* The Native American Rights Fund, 303/447-8760.