Repatriation of Land to Tribes

My second novel, The Inheritance, deals with repatriation of land that was stolen from Indigenous peoples. The novel traces my own experience of uncovering the history of an inheritance, finding that it originated in my great-grandparents homesteading land from which the Utes had been expelled. My great-grandparents sold the homestead and bought land in Steamboat Springs, then later sold that land. What I inherited wasn’t the land itself, but rather investments made from acquiring and selling it. So when I made the decision to repatriate what had been stolen, While I couldn’t return the land itself, in September 2017, I returned my share the monetary value that had accrued.

I am starting to keep track of other white people who have repatriated land to tribes. Below are three that I know of. Please contact me if you know of others.

In 2015, California landowner Bill Richardson transferred 700 acres of his family ranch in Sonoma County to the Pomo Kaisha Tribe, on whose ancestral land the ranch was located. The ranch had been in the Richardson family since 1925. Richardson worked with fund raisers, including the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, to raise funds to buy the land at a generously discounted price. While Richardson will continue to live on the land, the Pomo gained immediate access to it for their own use and management.

In 2016, Jean-Louis Goldwater Bourgeois (son of the artist Louise Bourgeois) began the process of transferring the deed of his $4 million, landmarked house in Manhattan to a nonprofit controlled by the Lenape tribe, on whose ancestral land Manhattan was built. Bourgeois said, “This building is the trophy from major theft. It disgusts me.” He feels “rage against what whites have done and some guilt, no, a lot of guilt, that I have profited from this major theft. The right thing to do is to return it.”

In June, 2018, Art and Helen Tanderup of Nebraska signed a deed returning ancestral land along the “Trail of Tears” to the Ponca Tribes of Nebraska and Oklahoma. As reported in the news, “The land gifting ceremony and deed signing between farmers Art and Helen Tanderup, Ponca Tribe of Nebraska Chairman Larry Wright, Jr., and Ponca Nation of Oklahoma Councilwoman Casey Camp-Horinek took place on Sunday, June 10th, during an event that also included the 5th annual planting of sacred Ponca corn on the Tanderup farm.” Nearly 200 people gathered near Neligh, Nebraska at the farm to plant and to celebrate the transfer of 1.6 acres of the land. (Coincidentally, on p. 138, The Inheritance recounts the expulsion of the Ponca from their lands in Nebraska).

I am hopeful that these examples of repatriation of land to tribes will inspire other descendants of the colonizers to do the same. Ideally, repatriation of land would occur through tribal government — federal government collaboration, since it was the federal government that took the land in the first place. But that is unlikely to happen soon. In the meantime, these examples offer varied examples of how families can repatriate land to tribes themselves.

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