This Land Is Our Land

By Stacy Hutto

What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?

--          Massasoit Sachem, leader of the Wampanoag

            during the 1600s

Perhaps the most diversionary and contentious struggle between Native Americans and early European settlers in the United States was the concept of ownership. And ownership of land specifically.

The land grab of the Five Tribes—the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole Nations—began with the Dawes Act of 1887 and continued with the Act of Aug. 4, 1947, also known as the 47 Act or the Stigler Act. 

According to Josh Riley, Senior Policy Analyst for Choctaw Nation Government Relations, since these acts, there have been many pieces of legislation meant to undermine the Native concept of land and what it means to be the caretakers of the land.

However, on May 23, 2017, sponsor Congressman Tom Cole (R–OK 4) introduced H.R. 2606–Stigler Act Amendments of 2017 to the House of Representatives. The legislation which was co–sponsored by Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R–OK 2), Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R–OK 3), and Rep. Steve Russell (R–OK 5) amends Section 1 of the Stigler Act so that land in Oklahoma belonging to a lineal descendant by blood of an original enrollee whose name appears on the Final Indian Rolls of the Five Tribes in Indian Territory will remain in restricted status until an Act of Congress determines otherwise. 

In the amendment, land restrictions will be lifted for Five Tribes members whose blood quantum is one-half degree or more American Indian blood.

Section 1 of the Act of August 11, 1955, is the only part of the Act where a blood quantum is mentioned. Removing the section will continue the goal of the Stigler Act Amendment.

It also repeals Section 2 of the Stigler Act. Section 2 details how to determine the quantum of Indian blood of an heir or devisee. The Amendment Act also removes any mention in the Stigler Act of “one–half or more Indian blood.”

The Stigler Amendment of 2017 was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources the same day it was introduced to the House of Representatives. The Act was referred to the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs on June 7, 2017.

“The Senate is waiting for the Stigler Act Amendment to pass the House, then they will adopt the House version of the bill,” Riley said. The Act is expected to pass the House of Representatives.

Once the Act passes the House and the Senate it goes before the President of the United States for his signature and then becomes law.

Once the Stigler Act Amendments become law, land belonging to tribal members will remain in restricted free status and be protected from state overreach.

The original Dawes Act allowed the federal government to survey tribal lands and take the land from tribal communal holding and disperse the land out to individual tribal citizens. The Stigler Act was yet another way to take land away from tribal control and place in state control so the state would be able to tax the land. 

Over the years and through treaties, the Five Tribes received a total combined original allotment of 16,565,571.10 acres. The current allotments, as of February 2016, was 424,622.491 acres. Over the years the Five Tribes have lost 16,140,948.60 acres. (See graphic for breakdown by tribe.)

The actual title to the allotment parcels were set forth in the Stigler Act. The Stigler Act stated, upon probate, if the heirs of an original allottee passed out of the one-half degree blood quantum, the land would lose its restricted free status. Federal law does not dictate a minimum Native American quantum requirement for any other tribe in the United States other than the Five Tribes.

Restricted free status means the land is under tribal jurisdiction, as well as federal government jurisdiction. It is not part of the State of Oklahoma and the State of Oklahoma cannot tax the land. Land in restricted status is protected from state overreach. It is essentially trust land, sovereign land.

The Stigler Act also stated the State Courts of Oklahoma had exclusive jurisdiction of all guardianship matters affecting tribal members of the Five Tribes. The state courts were also given jurisdiction over all proceedings to administer estates, to probate the wills of deceased members of the Five Tribes, as well as to determine heirs.

Land that lost the restricted free status was no longer sovereign land and was subject to taxation by the federal government. It would also enable oil and gas companies to enter the land without having to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In July 2015, Choctaw Chief Gary Batton, Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anotubby, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief George Tiger, Seminole Nation Principal Chief Leonard M. Harjo, and Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker unanimously signed a resolution at the Inter–Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes denouncing the impact of the Stigler Act. The resolution ended with a request to Oklahoma congressmen to begin reformation of the Stigler Act.