FORT TOTTEN, N.D. -- During the past 30 years, the Spirit Lake Tribe has repurchased about 50,000 acres of reservation land.

Tribal Chairman Myra Pearson knows when acquisition efforts will cease. "When we own it all," she said.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

Because about two-thirds of reservation land still is owned by non-Indians, complete ownership won't happen soon. But the tribe's rate of buyouts still is brisk enough to alarm local nonreservation taxing authorities.

That's because tribe-purchased land goes into a federal trust, which isn't subject to property taxes. So, the county, townships and school districts lose those tax dollars. In Benson County, where most of the reacquired acres exist, the annual losses to those taxing entities total about $240,000. The county government's share of that figure is $89,000.

"I don't blame the tribe," said Michael Steffan, county board chairman. "Their goal to help themselves is honorable. But it puts a drain on the county. I can understand both sides."

Since the federal government is involved with the reservation, commissioners believe local governments should receive impact aid, just as they do when U.S. Fish and Wildlife buys land that goes off the tax rolls.

Not all of the commissioners are as understanding as Steffan.

"We lose the tax dollars, yet we still have to provide services like road maintenance and law enforcement to the reservation," Lowell Haagenson said. "In a small county like ours, $89,000 is a lot of money. And it's only going to get worse and worse."

Or better and better, in the perspective of Pearson and the tribe.

"We're doing this for economic reasons and for cultural reasons," Pearson said. "We're making our reservation whole again. We want our people to be able to say, 'This is all ours.' "

Most allotments were sold

The 245,000-acre reservation was established by treaty in 1867, with 1,205 tribal members being allotted 160, 80 or 40 acres by the U.S. government. The goal was to assimilate them to the white culture by becoming farmers or ranchers. The federal government bought back the remaining land and offered it to white homesteaders.

So, from the start, part of the reservation was owned by non-Indians. Eventually, most of the land owned privately by the so-called "allottees" was sold to non-Indians. Some Indian sellers didn't understand the true value of the land and received little for it.

"Before we got the casino, others sold their land for survival," Pearson said. "Some sold it to pay for funerals."

The result was that Spirit Lake had a small economic base for Native Americans. Then, Congress passed the Indian Land Consolidation Act in 1975, allowing tribes to buy land. The purchases started slowly, but they have grown across the country since casinos began appearing on reservations and casino profits provided added capital.

"We have put some money aside from the casino for buying land, but I'm not saying how much," Pearson said. "Most of the money for buying land comes from our leases on the land we own."

Joann Smith, who bids on available land as the head of the tribe's realty office, said some of the purchased land is needed for housing, since the population of Spirit Lake has grown from 5,000 to 6,000 this decade. But easily most of the purchased acres are rented out to non-Indians or are enrolled in the federal government's Conservation Reserve Program.

"We use the income from that land to buy more land," Smith said. "That's the only thing it goes for -- nothing else.

"Most of the abstracts have Indian names as the original owners."

The purchases since 1975 mean 80,000 acres are now in trust or are in the process of being placed in trust. The reacquired 50,000 acres were bought mostly with low-interest Federal Housing Administration loans. That fact grates on county commissioners.

"Our tax dollars are being used to buy the land and reduce our tax base," Benson County's Steffan said. "That's not fair."

The tribe has financial edges over private bidders when land is available. One advantage is the lower loan interest rate. The other is that there's no property tax expense.

"They pay premium dollar," said Benson County Attorney James Wang, who has handled sales in his private practice. "If you're retiring, that's the place to get top money for your land."

Spirit Lake's Smith agrees that she rarely loses bidding battles. "We can go higher most times," she said. "But we haven't bought as many acres as I'd like to see lately. The land values are really high this year.

"And when they see me in the room, the bids go higher."

Wang said some sellers don't use the bidding process because "they don't want to see their land taken off the tax rolls."

Mixed results elsewhere

Tribal governments elsewhere in the region also are slowly buying back original allottee land.

Only about 10 percent of the White Earth Band of Chippewa's 837,000 acres are Indian-owned, most by the band.

"But that's double what it was when we started 20 years ago," said Mike Swan, director of natural resources for White Earth, located in northwest Minnesota's Mahnomen, Clearwater and Becker counties. "Slowly, we're getting our land back. But most of it is forestry land or wetlands, so we're short on good land for housing development."

About 75 percent of the White Earth reservation is owned by non-Indians, while the state and federal governments own the balance. Only 38 of the original individual allotments remain.

Buying more land is a priority, Swan said. "It's important for housing, economic development, cultural significance and hunting opportunities," he said.

The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa has reclaimed only 480 acres since it started 15 years ago, none of it in the past six years. One factor is that the north-central North Dakota reservation is small, covering only 46,000 acres.

"Money is the main reason," said Lyle Morin of the Bureau of Indian Affairs real estate office. "The tribe doesn't have the resources to purchase the properties."

Also, said natural resources officer Denise Peltier, "Land isn't available very often. But when it does, we try to snap it up in a heartbeat."

The Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota is wholly owned by the band, not the individuals. Because the tribe successfully resisted attempts at allotment, their land was never held individually and thus never sold to non-Indians.

More acres

headed to trust

In early summer, the Benson County Board received notice that another 3,500 acres will go into trust. This was disconcerting for a county that has lost not only trust land, but also another 45,000 acres since the early 1990s to the expanding Devils Lake.

Much of that lost taxable valuable has been recovered because of more housing and recreational development around the lake.

But the rising water also has meant growing expenses, especially for raising and repairing roads.

"It all adds up to us not being able to do what we'd like to do," board chairman Steffan said. "Our latest big problems are the cost increases in health insurance and fuel."

Still, Spirit Lake members believe they, not local governments, are the victims.

"The whole thing was ours at one time -- the beginning," Smith said. "It was taken."

Land purchases will help the members escape poverty and become more self-sufficient, leaders say. Because land is regarded as sacred, it also has spiritual meaning.

"It's too bad we have to buy it back," Pearson said. "But that's the way it is today."

Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send e-mail to