Flames leap up 20 feet around her. White smoke curls into the air and the heat hits her face as Victoria Ranua torches Canada thistle, foxtail and reed canary grass. Ranua is a botanist on an unusual mission. She's trying to burn up any invasive weeds that European settlers brought with them 150 years ago, when they stampeded onto land once belonging exclusively to American Indians.
Ranua, who works for the Mdewakanton Sioux Community near Minneapolis, is clearing the ground in a patch of suburban Shakopee to make way for big blue stem, prairie blazing star, purple coneflower and other native plants, which, she hopes, will lure back meadowlarks, raptors, voles and other creatures that once inhabited the territory. "If you're going to preserve the culture, you have to have a landscape," says Stan Ellison, the tribe's land manager. "The Dakota culture--especially the Mdewakanton, their food, their fiber, their spiritual relationships--were based on the land they lived on." The Sioux are also planting sage and sweetgrass as well as chokecherry and wild plum trees, which tribe members have used for generations for medicine and food.
To get back to the garden that existed before Europeans ravaged their lands, Native Americans are cultivating with an unnatural resource--casino riches. Across the country, Native American tribes are snapping up property with the cash that's flowing in from slot machines, blackjack tables and roulette wheels. Last year, tribal gaming revenue hit $27 billion. Since Native Americans won the right to build casinos on their reservations in 1988, the lucrative business has caught fire. Of the 562 federally recognized tribes, about 220 have gaming operations. And they're using their new-found fortune to invest in land for housing, businesses, farming, hunting and fishing grounds, grazing lands for cattle and buffalo-or simply returning it to the wild. With earnings from its Wildhorse Resort and Casino, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservations in northeast Oregon spent $20 million to acquire roughly 30,000 acres, about a third of which they are returning to its natural conditions, said Bill Tovey, the tribe's director of economic development. Part of the grounds harbor plants and roots the nation uses for ceremonial purposes. "If you don't have land, you don't have culture," he said. "You don't own your destiny."
That may be true, but many people who've arrived over the last century and a half see this Native American land grab as a drain on their tax base and powers of economic development. That's because tribal leaders are increasingly removing the land from tax rolls by placing it into federal trust. It's a perfectly legal maneuver dating to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, passed to re-establish Native American parcels lost through legislation in 1887. That obscure law was invoked sparingly--until Native Americans had the wherewithal to go on a real-estate spending spree. Now government officials and critics are trying to fend off the Native American's land rush. "I don't think in the modern world it makes any sense to tie any individual rights to a tribal entity that is unaccountable," said David Vickers, president of Upstate Citizens for Equality in Verona, New York, an organization which disputes the notion of Native American sovereignty. "It's possible to maintain cultural identity without establishing a separate land base."
Vickers is part of a battle heating up in central New York state. Last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior sided with the Oneida Indian Nation of New York by allowing 13,004 acres owned by the nation to be put into a tax-free trust. The designation also makes the land an independent territory, subject to most federal laws but not all state, city or county regulations or taxes. The tribe—which operates the Turning Stone Resort and Casino, a golf course on the PGA Tour, gas stations, convenience stores, government buildings, a 1,200-head Angus beef farm, and cultural facilities--said it planned no changes for the property.
That decision was the latest round in a long-running tussle. After the tribe bought land in the 1990s, the city of Sherrill, N.Y. tried to collect property taxes, and the two sides went to court. In March 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the tribe but suggested that the land would be tax-exempt if it were in trust. In April 2005, the nation applied for trust status for almost all of its land holdings. In ruling last week, the Interior Department said putting the land into trust would address the Oneida Nation's "need for cultural and social preservation and expression, political self-determination, self-sufficiency, and economic growth by providing a tribal land base and homeland."
To Kandice Watson, a member of the Oneida Wolf Clan, the ruling is a long overdue move to preserve her tribe's heritage. "The land is important so we can survive as a community," she said. "Seven generations from now we will still have an Oneida Nation here in central New York….We want to be able maintain our traditions and culture, including our language."
In the frontier days, a dispute like this might well have been settled at the point of a gun. These days, it's heading for court. Vickers' group and the two counties in which the land is located--Madison and Oneida--are likely to file suit to seek to overturn the Interior Department's decision. Local municipalities contend the nation owes at least $22.5 million in back taxes on the land and also should be responsible for the approximately $340 million assessed on the 19-story casino and resort buildings. "The loss of the tax base, that's significant," said Oneida County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. But the Oneida nation counters that federal courts have ruled that Indian gaming sites and land cannot be taxed.
The Oneidas aren't the only ones trying to make up for past inequities. For more than 100 years, tribes lost huge swaths of land via treaties, legislation and, most famously, by force. In 1881, Native American tribes owned about 138 million acres; today that figure is down to roughly 55 million acres, according to the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. "Some of our sacred areas we don't own anymore," said Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has been generally supportive of tribes reclaiming their land and placing it into public trust. "It's like somebody owning your temple or your church. It's just not right."
Skirmishes are breaking out even over tiny parcels. Some residents in Santa Barbara County, California, are angered that the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, with one of the smallest reservations in the country, now at about 150 acres, aims to put 6.9 acres of tribally-owned land into trust and then build a cultural museum, park and retail space. Opponents, who are suing the federal government to change the land-to-trust approval process, say they are only trying to protect their rural quality of life in objecting to any expansions in the tribe's business operations or trust lands. "Whether it's 6.9 or 69 or 699 (acres), the local community doesn't have a say," said Steve Pappas, a founder of Preservation of Los Olivos.
For the Shakopee Sioux Indians in Minnesota, resistance has come from officials who contend that the tribal land buys impede economic development. In addition to restoring the land, the tribe wants to place 760 acres in trust and use much of it for housing. "We're running out of land for our community members," said Glynn Crooks, the tribe's vice chairman. "We're buying land to fit the needs of our tribe." The tribe, which owns the profitable Mystic Lake Casino, also wants to put up a cultural center, fire station and powwow grounds.
The city of Shakopee opposes the trust application and has filed a federal appeal. Mayor John Schmitt says the city will lose tax revenue-and argues further that the land buy gums up long-held plans to develop nearby properties into a park, a housing development and a commuter park-and-ride facility. "It puts the Native Americans in control of one-third of the community's developable land," Schmitt says. "They were able to disrupt the orderly development of the community."
But with all those casino dollars rolling in, Native Americas finally see an opportunity to take back what they contend was always rightfully theirs. "We see more economic ability now in Indian Country than ever before," said Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. "We'll be able to continue reacquiring land. That's our mission." But just as before, there will be a fight over that land.