Indians Fight to Regain Lands Lost to Railroad

By STEPHANIE STROM

 

 

LEECH LAKE RESERVATION, Minn. Richard Robinson Jr. remembers how much his grandfather Martin Bobolink, a hospital janitor, looked forward to retiring and returning to his land here. "He told us there was buried treasure there because his dad had put up gangsters," said Mr. Robinson, the acting chairman of the Leech Lake band of the Ojibwe tribe.

 

But Mr. Bobolink quickly learned that the land and any loot that might be on it was not his. The Bureau of Indian Affairs told him he had signed the land over to the United States in exchange for a few thousand dollars.

 

"He swore until he died that he never received a check and never signed any papers," Mr. Robinson said. "He was dead certain."

 

The story is a common one in what used to be Indian country, before the the relentless westward push of white settlers and railroads. Among the most effective tools of expropriation were nine laws passed by Congress in 1887, at the behest of James J. Hill, head of the Great Northern Railroad, and other railroad owners, which ensured that huge chunks of Indian land ended up in the hands of industrialists, homesteaders or, as in Mr. Bobolink's case, the United States government.

 

Now a chunk of the Hill fortune has been dedicated to reassembling that land and returning it to Indian control.

 

The Northwest Area Foundation, a $424 million philanthropy established by Hill's heirs, has given $20 million of seed money toward the effort, which aims to restore some 90 million acres on reservations around the country to Indian ownership.

 

"We're not saying it's going to be easy," said Cris Stainbrook, a Lakota who leads the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, which was created to lead the effort. "It's going to be very expensive, and probably the staff here now isn't going to be alive to see the mission completed. But it is the only way Native Americans can regain the means to preserve their sovereignty, their culture, their identity."

 

Philanthropy often seems tailor-made to assuage guilt, and the Great Northern was "one of the most Indian-subsidized railroads in America," wrote Michael P. Malone, a historian, in a 1996 biography of Mr. Hill. To build a railroad spanning the Northwest frontier, Mr. Hill needed a right of way through Indian country, and he used his friendships with politicians from Montana to Washington to get it.

 

So sharp-elbowed were the machinations of Mr. Hill and the other railroad tycoons that President Grover Cleveland initially vetoed the legislation they wanted in 1886, sharply denouncing the efforts of "a class of corporations carrying with them individuals not known for any scrupulous regard for the interest of the Indians."

 

Mr. Hill raged that the veto was "ridiculous" and drafted his friend William Vilas, the postmaster general, and others to persuade the president, also a friend, to reconsider, which he did.

 

Indians and the tribe now own less than 5 percent of the 677,099 acres on the Leech Lake Reservation, and the population is exploding as Indians return to take jobs in casinos or lose welfare benefits and seek tribal assistance. "People are living two or three families to a trailer home or, in the warm weather, in their cars," said Pauline Johnston, director of the Leech Lake land department. "We have no place to put them."

 

The Hill heirs say their philanthropic efforts are guided as much by a desire to improve the community as they are to make up for their ancestor's past. "I guess you could interpret it as atonement, but I don't really think of it like that," said Louis F. Hill, a great-grandson. "If you're going to be philanthropic, why not be philanthropic in the community that brought you the wealth to begin with? That's what philanthropy traditionally has done."

 

He noted that other railroads got much larger land grants under the laws and that his grandfather, Louis W. Hill, was adopted by the Blackfoot tribe of Montana, which called him Graybeard, because of his efforts to bring economic development to their reservations.

 

Land repurchase programs are under way on reservations around the country, but the process is expensive and complicated. And the organizers of the program here recognize that $20 million will not even begin to buy back all the land the Indian Land Tenure Foundation wants to see in Indian hands.

 

The money will jump-start programs to educate Indians about protecting the land they do own by, for instance, writing wills that specify heirs or putting the land in trust.

 

Land acquisition, by far the foundation's boldest goal, will take at least $400 million more and will require innovative private financing techniques.

 

Through a series of treaties, the United States set aside 138 million acres in reservations owned by tribes and then almost immediately set about finding ways to get the land into non-Indian hands. Perhaps the most effective of those efforts was the 1887 package of laws. Six of those granted land to the railroads for expansion, and one of the other three, the General Allotment Act, supplied them their customers.

 

That act redistributed reservation lands to individual Indians in 40-, 80- and 160-acre parcels that the government was to hold in trust for the new owners. Later, much of the unallocated reservation land was declared "in excess" of Indian needs and opened for development by non-Indian settlers and companies. Those settlers were customers for the railroads.

 

"Hill benefited, Harriman benefited, the whole series of railroad tycoons benefited from this systematic displacement of Indians from their land and their replacement by European settlers," said Karl Stauber, president of the Northwest Area Foundation, referring to Edward Harriman, one of James Hill's competitors.

 

Recovering reservation land that has passed into private or public ownership will be a big challenge. The largest block of land on the Leech Lake Reservation is part of Chippewa National Forest, and much of the lakefront property around the reservation's three biggest lakes is in private hands.

 

Property owners are more and more aware of Indian efforts to regain reservation land, and their asking prices get higher when a tribe shows an interest, Indians in Leech Lake said.

 

The Leech Lake band's budget for land reclamation this year is $435,000, all it could spare from the $12 million it earned in casino revenues; much of the rest was eaten up by necessities like housing, health care and education. In November, it spent most of the yearly budget to buy 425 acres at $1,000 an acre from a Sioux Indian.

 

Discrimination also keeps land out of reach. "The land over there on that corner is ours," Ms. Johnston of the Leech Lake land department, said, pointing out plots the band has recovered. "They didn't want to sell to Indians, so we used a white guy who helped us buy it."

 

Even the land that is in the hands of individual Indians poses problems for the foundation. The Allotment Act, which was shepherded through Congress by Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, a friend of James Hill, gave Indians ownership of parcels of land, but as the land moved into the hands of their offspring, they owned the land collectively unless otherwise spelled out in a will.

 

"It's like owning a share of stock in a company," said Annabell Kingbird, assistant director of the land department. "In the same way a shareholder can't walk into a company and point to a desk or a computer and say `that's mine,' an interest holder cannot point to any land and call it his."

 

Because the concept of private property was traditionally alien to Indians, many of them did not write wills. Left to the discretion of the probate court, ownership of the original allotments has become highly splintered.

 

Lee Turney's mother, for instance, left no will when she died in 1955. Her estate, four allotments totaling 110 acres, was in probate until the spring of last year. The court divided interest in the land equally among 210 descendants.

 

Mr. Turney, who lives on land owned by the tribe, holds interests of a little more than a tenth of an acre in each of the four parcels. "There is absolutely nothing I can do with that land, nothing at all," he said.

 

Even if he wanted to try, he would have to get the approval of a majority of the other 209 owners. "I guess I probably know about 10 of them, and that's being generous," he said. "I wouldn't even want to attempt to do anything. Families have enough divisions without this one."

 

Della Kingbird's mother used a gift deed to give her daughter an interest representing almost seven acres of an 80 acre parcel. In 1996, Ms. Kingbird got approval from 51 percent of the other owners to build a house on the land only to have the largest stakeholder die, voiding the approval process. "I gave up," she said.

 

She now lives on land adjacent to that plot. Not only did she have to buy it, she pays taxes on it, which she would not have had to do on the land her mother left her.

 

Mr. Stainbrook of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation says he believes James Hill would have appreciated the foundation's efforts to end such complexity.

 

"In some ways, I don't think James J. Hill would have been against what we're trying to do with his money," Mr. Stainbrook said. "He was always for developing the land in a way that would benefit the region and the country at large, in a way that made it productive, and we're really trying to do the same thing."