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Ancestral Lands
Peter Matthiessen

Who Owns the Land?

Catlin presents one of the last looks at American Indians living in a place under their control, before European-American views about private land ownership all but destroyed many cultures in the West. Catlin also describes Indian life based on the communal use of lands undivided and without boundaries, settlement, or cultivation, and he hopes that the government will not be a party to usurping their lands. In 1867 and 1868, government agents demanded that the Plains nations move to reservations, and deals were struck with chiefs who didn't understand the European concept of land ownership. Today, land that is now owned privately is being claimed by Indians armed with treaties identifying the boundaries of their reservations. But what is demanded is rarely the removal of the present occupant, who might have paid for the land in good faith. What is asked is the recognition of the principle of Indian ownership, followed by fair negotiation and recompense.

Land Claims

There are many situations today where Indian peoples are still fighting for their land and recognition of their rights as individuals and as tribal groups. The Black Hills is a very sacred place, to not only the Lakota, I think, but to all of the tribes in that region. It was sacred land in there and that's ongoing and, I suppose, the litigation and legislation is still going in terms of the land claims. The Indians, to their great credit, refused an enormous cash award for the land. They said, no, we don't want to sell the land, that land is ours. And, again, they want recognized the principle of Indian ownership by treaty. They want us to take responsibility for the deal we made back then—which we've done our very best to avoid. The land is terrible land, and only by some historical irony has it turned out to be very valuable mineral land. That's happened a great deal. They were awarded awful, arid places where you could hardly grow a weed, and it turned out the land had a huge mineral belt underneath the ground. It was good luck for them, but it wasn't our good intention.

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