by BRADLEY GERNAND
Restrictions on land transfers which have troubled Choctaw families for decades have now been removed, eliminating a long-standing injustice.
Legislation signed into law Dec. 31, 2018 by President Donald Trump eliminates a restriction on land inheritance by members of the Five Tribes which dated from 1947.
The restriction, which was part of the Stigler Act, took away the right of tribal citizens possessing less than one-half degree Indian blood quantum from inheriting land from their forebears and retaining it as “Indian land.”
Until passage of the Stigler Act the government administered strict protections on land which had been allotted to original enrollees, limiting the ability to sell or transfer it, or for counties to tax it, without federal approval.
After passage of the Stigler Act these lands were no longer protected during probate proceedings if heirs of allotted land possessed less than one-half degree Indian blood quantum. Federal law did not dictate a minimum Native American blood degree requirement for any other Native American tribes.
During recent years more and more Choctaw citizens have been blocked from inheriting interests in lands allotted to their Choctaw ancestors because they did not meet the Stigler Act’s 50 percent blood quantum threshold.
As of early 2016, “after a century of staggering losses of Choctaw Indian lands,” the Choctaw Nation says, the number of allotted lands within its boundaries was reduced to 135,263 acres, down from almost 7 million acres following the original allotments.
As the members of earlier generations continued to pass, the problem deepened. Since the beginning of 2017, at least 40 Choctaw citizens who are heirs of original allottees lost their restricted interests in at least 2,800 acres as a consequence of the Stigler Act. Those lands then lost their protected status and the characteristics originally defining them as Indian lands and have now come under state and county taxation.
In July 2015, with the scope of the problem rapidly becoming apparent, Choctaw NationChief Gary Batton joined leaders of the other Five Tribes in calling on Oklahoma’s congressional delegation to address the injustices of the Stigler Act. The chiefs, during a meeting of the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, signed a unanimous resolution denouncing the impacts of the act.
Responding to the chiefs’ plea, Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Oklahoma, sponsored legislation in May 2017 designed to amend the Stigler Act. This effort, which was co-sponsored by other members of the House from Oklahoma, culminated Dec. 31, 2018, with President Trump signing the amendment into law.
Removal of these unfair restrictions “restores the Choctaw Nation, and its citizens, to the same parity treatment that the United States accords other Indian tribes and tribal members outside of eastern Oklahoma,” the Choctaw Nation said in a statement.
“This legislation is a tremendous win for all Oklahoma tribes and Native Americans in the state,” Chief Batton said, following the president’s signature. “Native people will be better able to protect tribal lands and maintain generation-to-generation ownership and connection to our land.”
Rep. Cole agreed, saying “Many of Oklahoma’s citizens have passed out of half-blood lineage, but remain vested to their Native American heritage. Removing the half-blood degree prerequisite and expanding its range to any degree will help preserve the rights and legacy of Native American tribes and their inheritance.” Cole is a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
The recently signed amendment does not reverse past injustices caused by the 71-year-old Stigler Act, but prevents future ones from occurring, according to Donna Loper, the Choctaw Nation’s senior director of land titles and records. For original Indian land to still be restricted today it has to have “never been sold and never passed by probate to someone who is less than half-blood.”
President Trump’s signature on Dec. 31 was the latest development in a process which stretches back approximately 120 years.
During the waning days of the Indian Territory, as it became clear the lands inhabited by what were then known as the Five Civilized Tribes were—contrary to longstanding treaties—eventually to be part of a new state in the United States, Congress acted to begin the process known as “allotment.”
Lands in the Five Tribes had until that time been held by each tribe in common, with no individual ownership. In the United States, however, land is generally owned by specific individuals or entities and taxed by their governments. Congress established a commission to create membership rolls for each of the Five Tribes. Following completion, they divided tribal lands among tribal members. Oklahoma came into existence in November 1907 with lands within its borders allotted to these original enrollees protected at the federal level. The rest was taxed.
Potential negative impacts arising from the Stigler Act were not universally evident in 1947. An issue of Smoke Signals, the journal of the Indian Association of America, reported at the time that the Stigler Act was passed so Choctaws and Chickasaws “could sell their lands to the government.” This apparently was considered an advance or improvement. President Harry S. Truman, in affixing his signature to the act, the journal said, “wrote the happy ending to the story.”
But that was not the end, and it was not happy. A wrong has been righted, and the process continues. With faith, family and culture as their longstanding mainstays, the future continues to brighten for one of the world’s most historic peoples.