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Some Debate about Leasing Indian Lands
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Thursday morning, October 17
Miss Collins was invited to speak.
Miss Mary Collins. The question of leasing lands has come to us at Standing Rock Agency. We had a council of our Indians to consider the question. A great cattle company wanted to hire the land, and the Indians, without a single exception, voted against it, and their speeches were very interesting and strong. They said: “If we begin renting our lands, and depending on the income which we shall receive in this way, then we begin to pauperize our young men. We old ones have had to live off the Government, but we do not want our young men to do that.” The vote was unanimous. The Indians were sent back to their homes; but we received word that there was to be another council, because the thing had to be put through, as the Indian Commissioner wanted it done. At the next council Dr. Ward and Dr. Warner of New York were present, and they heard the whole thing. Again the Indians all were opposed to leasing the lands. Before I came away I heard a man say that the thing would be put through. I said it could not if the Indians voted against it, as the Indians had treaty rights. I was answered it was a very easy thing; that the Indian agent could not lease the land, but he could permit men to come in with their cattle. The land asked by the agent was the northwest corner, but the land referred to in the telegram, I understand, was all land north of Grand River. As that valley is where all our Indians in the western part of the reservation live, it would practically ruin all their farms, and drive their cattle from water. There is little water on the reservation.
Miss Reel. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs is opposed to having the Indians lease lands. In the Indian Territory land is leased for 30 cents an acre, where it used to be leased for 3 cents. Cattlemen can not pay 30 cents an acre and make money. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs is anxious to have the Indians live on their own lands.
Mr. C. F. Meserve. A word in regard to this matter. I refer, not to what is termed cattle land, but such as our English friend would call an “agricultural” farm. I do not believe we shall ever get this problem settled until the Indian is got upon his land, until he will stay upon it and work upon it; but there are individual holdings of from 500 to 1,000 acres, and I would have a large portion of these holdings rented, and not allow the rent to be paid in money, but in labor, and the Indian should be taught by the white man how to plow, to cultivate, and to do all kinds of farm work.
The Chair. A note comes to me asking me to inquire why the Indian agent thought the Commissioner wished to have the land leased to the cattlemen. Miss Collins will perhaps tell us about it.
Miss Collins. A telegram was received from Washington telling them to put the thing through, signed by the Assistant Commissioner. I cannot quote the exact words of the telegram, but that was the substance. The Indians are just beginning to become accustomed to the idea of allotments, and the speakers at the council all spoke of the necessity of the young Indians learning to keep herds. They said: “Our land is large and grass is plentiful, but there is but little water. We desire to have our herds increased, giving Cows to our young men out of the money due us.”
Dr. Lyman Abbott. I wish some one would suggest a method by which Indian lands and tribal funds can be allotted so as to benefit, not harm, the Indian. There is a difference among the Indians as among white people. Some could carry on a cattle ranch better than I could. I wish some one would tell us what the Indian is to do who has land, which he does not wish to cultivate. He does not wish to be anchored to the soil; he wishes to be an engineer, a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor. What is he to do with his land then? How can he get the benefit of his land if he has no right to lease it? At the same time, how is the Indian who leases his land to be guided so that he shall not spend the money he gets from it in drink?
General Morgan was asked to reply to Dr. Abbott.
General Morgan. I am not prepared to answer these questions. This matter was carefully considered in the Indian Office, and we found that there are many aged people who can not cultivate the land; a number who are physically unable to do it; there are a number of minors, infants, children up to 18 years of age, who could not; there is a large body of women who can not possibly take a farm and cultivate it. There are quite a number who wish to teach or preach or follow some other profession or some other business who have no taste for agriculture. It is impossible that they should take this raw land and make farms of it unless they abandon all other pursuits. Then there are many to whom land has been assigned who have no money, no farming utensils, no experience. What shall they do? What shall be done for those people who own these large bodies of land which they themselves by no possibility can use? This is the practical question, and it must be recognized in any scheme adopted by the Government. It makes it unwise and irrational to condemn the whole leasing system as in itself vicious.
Major Bright. To what extent is the matter of leasing subject to the approval of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs or the Secretary of the Interior?
The Chair. Absolutely and altogether. No lease on a reservation before allotment can be made without the authority and approval of the Secretary of the Interior exercised through the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Major Bright. Would it not be easy to devise a system by which the proper information could be given to him?
The Chair Much could be done to check the evils, and our Board has year by year recommended that this loose way of leasing should be stopped.
Dr. Abbott asks a question that I have been studying for some time, and while I know there are many details to be considered, it seems to me that the answer must be found in some system for homesteading Indian lands. In such a plan, every allotment for tribal land would have to be proved up by the Indian by three to five years’ use of his land before he received his final deed for it. This would not throw open the reservations as rapidly, but it would teach the Indian the value of his land and check his roving habits, which are the root of the harmful form of leasing. The trouble with the Omaha and Winnebago Indians was that their land was handed over to them whether they wanted it or not. To a wild Indian it is less than nothing to have 160 acres, since it deprives him of the right to use many thousands, and he must learn to value land by working for it. Many an educated Indian, as Dr. Abbott says, may do something better than “agricultural farming. For such could there not be a time limit set when he must decide whether he will take it himself or not, say at the age of 30? If he will not take the land then or finds some other work, there should be a certain payment to him from the funds of the tribe, or by the leasing of the land, to help him in his chosen business. When it comes to leasing, there should be a preference given to leasing to Indians. At Pine Ridge this summer, with 8,000,000 acres of land, white men said there was not enough to support 7,000 Indians. Yet in the White Clay district there were Indians, with good herds of cattle, who already had in use much more land than any allotment could give them, and the missionaries say that if you deprive those Indians of the land you will deprive them of any future in the cattle business. I think they are better on a cattle ranch than Dr. Abbott would be. There are men who cannot read and write who would gladly hire a good many acres and use it for cattle; and the tendency is to bring the Indians into that cattle life as the first step toward business relations.
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