Why Native Americans are buying back land that was stolen from them

From 1877 to 1934, under a range of laws and reneged-upon treaties, the U.S. government appropriated tens of millions of acres of Native American land. In recent years there has been a growing movement known as “land back” to reclaim their lands. In some cases that has meant tribes are choosing to buy it back on the open market. In the first of a two-part series, special correspondent Kira Kay reports from Northern California.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    From 1877 to 1934, through a range of laws and broken treaties, the U.S. government appropriated tens of millions of acres of Native American land.

    In recent years, a growing movement to reclaim what was once theirs has begun to form around the slogan "land back". There have been some successes – last December, congress passed legislation and restored ownership of all 19,000 acres of the national bison range in montana to the Salish and Kootenai tribes.

    But much of Native American lands ended up in private hands, and tribes are increasingly buying back that land.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Kira Kay has part one in our two-part report.

  • Kira Kay:

    On the foggy banks of the Klamath River in Northern California, members of the Yurok Tribe are casting their fishing nets. The salmon harvest is finally good again, after a worrying spring – almost 90 percent of the juvenile salmon died, from a parasite caused by overly warm and poorly flowing water upstream.

    Salmon fishing is central to The Yurok's identity and survival, as are the forests that cover almost half a million acres around them. But these assets became attractive to settlers.

  • Frankie Myers:

    As America grew, its appetite grew as well. Its need for lumber, for building supplies.

  • Kira Kay:

    Frankie Myers, the tribes's Vice-Chair, says an 1887 law changed everything.

  • Frankie Myers:

    We had timber resources. We had salmon resources, but we also had the Allotment Act, which privatized tribal land. The vast majority of our land was immediately transferred to timber barons, after the act was passed. 9,800 acres, the next day.

  • Kira Kay:

    In recent years, a growing movement has begun to form around the slogan "land back", to demand the return of appropriated land to tribal jurisdictions. There have been some successes: In December, Congress passed legislation that restored all 19,000 acres of the National Bison Range in Montana to ownership by the Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

    But much of the appropriated land ended up in private hands. In the yurok's case, it was eventually owned and logged by Green Diamond Resource Company. Thirteen years ago, the Yurok began negotiations to try to get it back.

  • Frankie Myers:

    We tried to at first to have discussions about the wrongs that had happened, the atrocities that we went through, the theft of our land to see if there was a way that we could simply have the land transferred back to the tribe. That met… that met with not a positive reception.

  • Kira Kay:

    Finally, in what Myers describes as "a nexus of doing good and making a profit", Green Diamond agreed to start selling plots of the forest back to the tribe. Over the past decade, The Yurok have bought back more than 70 thousand acres of their original territory.

    Myers took me on a 6-hour dirt road trip through the regained forest, land on which he once trespassed, by cutting through gates.

  • Frankie Myers:

    I think one of the hugest benefits that we've seen to date is having our members, being able to go to their traditional hunting grounds. I can openly raise my children now to come out here to harvest, to practice. They're not criminals, and I'm not a criminal for showing them.

  • Kira Kay:

    At the end of the road: the pristine and sacred Blue Creek.

  • Frankie Myers:

    Blue Creek has some of the densest diversity in the entire nation. We have four runs of salmonids. We have bear, bald eagles. We have a diversity of plant species. We have beautiful redwoods. This is a true jewel.

  • Kira Kay:

    To help The Yurok buy the land, an environmental group called Western Rivers Conservancy raised government grants and donations. But the tribe still had to take out a 21 million dollar loan. …to pay it back, the tribe pushed to join California's carbon cap and trade market. Now, they get paid for each metric ton of carbon dioxide their forests convert to oxygen on behalf of companies emitting more than their cap allows.

  • Frankie Myers:

    This could be how we could meet our needs. We wouldn't have to log all of our land. We could implement our land management and we could also at the same time pay our debt that we had for it.

  • Kira Kay:

    But some environmental groups question both the efficacy and the ethics of carbon offset. There are critics though.

  • Frankie Myers:

    Absolutely.

  • Kira Kay:

    It allows polluters to keep polluting. How do you feel about that?

  • Frankie Myers:

    I was a critic of the carbon offset program. I had questions about the morality of carbon offset. I questioned whether or not it was really going to make an impact. We think that the good outweighs the negative. And we work diligently to make sure that our partners are truly making a difference that are truly making a change.

  • Kira Kay:

    They won't reveal how much they make; but the income is enough to pay down their loan, put money towards more land purchases, invest in local businesses and their school, and implement conservation efforts that meld current technology with indigenous practices. This includes improving the habitat for the four types of salmon so crucial to Yurok life.

  • Frankie Myers:

    It's just like us. You know, we, we have a better home. You have a better life. You have a better family. You feel better. We're doing that same thing for salmonids. But that starts with the data, we got to figure out what's here. We have a world-class fisheries design team. They rebuild the Creek to create new habitat, to create new, uh, channels that will benefit our Salmonid population.

  • Kira Kay:

    Meanwhile, The Yurok are sustainably logging their regained forests, thinning to allow more mature trees to flourish, and to reduce the risk of uncontained fire. The Yurok were encircled with forest fires this summer, along with much of the Pacific Northwest.

  • Frankie Myers:

    When we talk about fire, there is a conversation that happens with the assumption that fire is bad. That's not our view as indigenous people. Fire is no worse for the environment than the river that runs through it, or the rain that falls. What we want on the ground is nice, slow, cool burning fire, as opposed to high intensity, canopy catastrophic fires.

  • Kira Kay:

    Today Frankie Myers can take his son, Sregon, salmon fishing on the Klamath River, knowing that part of their ancestral land is back in their hands. The tribe is now exploring buying more parcels. But underpinning this success is the reminder that the land wasn't donated back, or even won through a legal battle.

    Is there a risk though that you're, disincentivizing the handful of organizations or people who may have wanted to just give it back if there's money to be made, why do the right thing?

  • Frankie Myers:

    I think that's a, that's a good question. I think after 150 years, if we haven't been given the land back yet, they're not going to give it back to us. End of the day, this is still America. There are still profits that need to be made. We did have to have a lengthy internal discussion about whether or not it was okay for us to buy land that was stolen from us. My elders, the people who came before me they gave us direction. Get your land back, whether it's right, doesn't matter.

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