When the Klamath Tribes of southern Oregon purchased a 1,705-acre patchwork of meadows, wetlands, and timberland that had once belonged to them this past summer, it represented the latest example of Native American tribes taking back their homelands via the real estate market.
The loss of Native American land during and after the colonization period remains one of the darkest points in US history, but in the past few decades, there has been a rise in land acquisitions from Native American tribes. For instance, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin has managed to buy back two-thirds of its original 65,432-acre reservation over the last 20 years. Meanwhile, the Yurok Tribe in California has purchased about 80,000 acres in just the past decade.
So, how has it become possible for Native American tribes to re-acquire their ancestral land? According to Sarah Krakoff, a law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and an expert on Native American law, the rise in such acquisitions can be traced back to the 1970s when tribes were able to rebuild their governmental functions and obtain funds.
“The 70s were the starting point, but then it takes a while to develop all the kinds of infrastructure – you need legal expertise, management savvy and expertise, and ways to acquire or arrange for transactions,” said Krakoff.
In the case of the Oneida Nation, the tribe started to flourish again thanks to casino operations and were able to generate enough revenue to start purchasing land from various individuals and real estate companies who put the land on the market. The Yurok Tribe had a bit of an easier route when it came to purchasing land as most of their ancestral territory was owned by one logging company, which meant that it only had to negotiate with one seller.
According to Willa Powless, a council member of the Klamath Tribes, the acquisition of ancestral land has been a major step toward piecing together a “broken heart”.
“Our people are born with a spiritual connection to the land that we all feel and we all know and our elders teach us about,” she said. Getting back that “big of a piece of land, especially undeveloped land, is really powerful. And it’s probably one of the most healing processes we’ve gone through in a long time.”
There is a bit of a dark irony that Native American tribes must purchase land that was originally stolen from them, but nonetheless, it warms our hearts to see tribes reclaim what’s rightfully theirs.