Returning What was Stolen

Returning was stolen to the Ute Nation

On September 24, 2017, I returned to the Ute Nation money I had inherited derived from the sale of a homestead on the Utes’ homeland in the Yampa Valley of Colorado immediately after the Utes had been expelled. How did I trace my inheritance to the Utes’ loss of land? Why did I frame the issue as “returning what was stolen?” How did I, and how might you, go about returning stolen land? Although I wrote about this research earlier, here I bring that story into full circle by sharing where the research took me.

Homesteading: White settlers and Indigenous land

Many of us, particularly those of us who are white, descend from settlers who homesteaded. When researching a family tree, we often start the story of our families with homesteading. As explained on Wikipedia, there have been several Homestead Acts, but generally the process involves conferring ownership of public land to settlers, usually at no cost to them, if they stay on the land for at least five years and make “improvements” to it, such as establishing a farm.

By starting our family story with white settlers, we usually do not ask whose land the U.S. government took to distribute to white settlers, nor what impact this land transfer has had on disparities in wealth. According to the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data, in 2007 the median wealth of white non-Hispanic families in the U.S. was $170,400, while that of non-white families was only $27,800. I could not locate census data on American Indian household wealth. But the 2014 U.S. Census does report that 29.2% of American Indians live below the poverty level, while only 15.9% of the nation as a whole does so, and that American Indians have the highest poverty rate while whites have the lowest.

During much of U.S. history, homesteading, which was based on theft of Indigenous people’s land, was open only to people of European descent. Homesteading, coupled with inheritances passed down generation to generation, has contributed to the enormous racial disparities in wealth. How might white people look into how they benefit personally from theft of land, then consider what to do about it?

Connecting homesteading and family wealth with land theft

I made the connection between the U.S. government taking the Utes’ land in the area around Steamboat Springs in 1880, and my inheritance, by piecing things together gradually. When my mother, and later my aunt, died, I inherited a portion of my grandmother’s estate. I wondered vaguely where it came from, since to my knowledge she had not held a job. I used some of it to pay off my house and put the rest in the bank. It was only later that my family history research shed light on where the inheritance came from.

Grandmother returns to Steamboat Springs, CO

I knew my grandmother had been born in, or near, Steamboat Springs, Colorado. That was part of our family story. One of my sisters has this photo of our grandmother standing in Steamboat Springs as an adult, a spray of columbine in her hand.

Using census data, I was able to trace where my grandmother’s parents were born (Tennessee), approximately when they went to Colorado, then approximately when they moved on to California. Some time after that, I discovered an archive of the digitized newspaper Steamboat Springs Pilot in the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The newspaper had been published since 1885. I played around with different ways of entering my ancestors’ names in the search box (last name only? full names? last name with initials?). I was surprised at how much I found, which included a listing of at least 21 lots in Steamboat Springs that my great grandfather bought. Where did he get the money to buy them, I wondered?

For a long time, I was not able to locate evidence of my great-grandparents homesteading. Records may well be housed in the Deeds Office of Routt County (a good place to check), but years ago when I visited Steamboat Springs, I did not think to look there. One day I tried Googling my grandfather’s name (again, playing with different ways of entering the name). I didn’t necessarily expect something to come up, but it did! I found a newly digitized document synthesizing various letters and other records of James Crawford, who founded Steamboat Springs. There, I found reference to my great grandparents having homesteaded five miles east of the town of Craig, in 1882. Later in another digitized newspaper article, I found an interview with a contemporary of my great grandfather, who described having gone with him and some other young men from Tennessee to Colorado in search of gold, in 1881. They didn’t find gold, but they did find an opportunity to get “free” land.

Returning what was stolen

Once I had connected my inheritance pretty directly with the government’s theft of the Utes’ land, and my ancestors getting a piece of it, I had to decide what to do with that knowledge. Returning the land would seem the obvious thing, except there are few role models of doing that. Jean Louis Bourgeois Goldwater transferred the deed of a house in New York to the Lenape Nation of Manhattan in 2016, and Bill Richardson’s family transferred 700 acres of Sonoma County to the Kashia band of Pomo Indians in 2015. These stories supported what I was thinking about. But I didn’t know anyone who is Ute, nor did a few colleagues whom I asked.

I intentionally framed what I wanted to do as “returning what was stolen,” however, rather as than giving the Tribe a donation. That framing kept me focused on figuring out who to approach and how, rather than donating the inheritance for something else. That framing also put the spotlight on the injustice of settler colonialism rather than the “generosity” of the donor.

I wondered what the procedure was for returning land. Do you just walk into the Tribal headquarters and announce that you’d like to do so? That question flummoxed me for a time.

As I learned, you can actually do just that. I was fortunate, however, to have found someone who works directly with the tribe by running a PAC organized to defend land and sovereignty. He served as an intermediary for me. In the process, I learned that the Tribe’s attorney handles things like this.

So, if you are thinking of doing the same thing I did, you can approach the Tribal Council (or Business Committee), or the Tribe’s attorney. Of course, making personal connections  helps.

Not everyone by a long shot has something to return. Many people do not have ancestors who homesteaded. In some cases, descendants of ancestors who homesteaded squandered what they had inherited; I know of two of my ancestors for whom that is the case. Or, you may not be able to work out a paper trail connecting what you have with homesteading Indian land. Or, you may not have the financial wherewithall to do what I did.

There are other ways to work, however. You can donate to organizations and buy-back systems working on the return of land to tribes, such as the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. Vote for candidates who recognize and value the sovereignty of Indian nations and land. Those of us who are teachers can educate our students (after educating ourselves) about the colonization and decolonization process. All of these things are worth doing.

For me personally, this process has resulted in connecting with Tribal members I am enjoying getting to know. A new school on the reservation is closer to being built. And a tiny piece of the universe that I’m connected to has been put back into balance. I hope that in a year or two, rather than struggling to find other examples of returning to the Indigenous peoples land that was stolen, we’ll be able to create a long list.


  1. Ellen Sternig says

    Great job Christie ??

  2. Simona L. Brickers says

    Christie – you are putting into practice what you so passionately write about all the time righting social injustices. Your research yielded ways for White people to do the right thing during a time when talks of reparations are denied as impossible to identify the wrong, you illustrated that it takes work and that it is possible. Thank you??

  3. Thank you, Simona!

  4. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a co-worker who had been doing a little homework on this.
    And he actually bought me dinner due to the fact that I
    found it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank
    YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending the time to talk about
    this matter here on your internet site.

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