Trust and Distrust of Indian Trust Land

The loss of Lakota land to the United States can be traced through time by examining legal records. These records include the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, the 1877 Act, and the 1889 Agreement. 

The first Fort Laramie Treaty was negotiated at the mouth of Horse Creek, about 35 miles down the North Platte River from Fort Laramie, and signed there on September 17, 1851, by six representatives of the Lakota nation. The treaty established, for the first time, the boundaries of the Lakota nation. Seventeen years later, another Fort Laramie Treaty established an even larger size of the Lakota nation, but organized the land into three areas: a reservation that was smaller than the 1851 homeland; an unceded territory that bordered the reservation’s south, west and north boundaries, and a hunting ground that was south of the unceded territory. In these two treaties, the Lakota nation did not relinquish land to the United States.


On March 3, 1871, the Indian Appropriations Act was signed into law. Buried in the Act was an appropriation of $1,500 “for insurance and transportation of goods” to the Yankton Sioux Tribe that was to be paid provided “That hereafter no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.” Thus was ended the making of treaties between the United States and American Indian tribes. 

Therefore, the taking of Lakota lands by the United States in 1877 and 1889 was not done by treaties. Instead, the Lakota nation’s hunting grounds, unceded territory, and the western portion of its reservation were lost to the United States by an Act of Congress on February 28, 1877. Twelve years later, on March 2, 1889, Congress signed an Act that divided a portion of the diminished reservation into five reservations west of the Missouri River in what was then Dakota Territory. The non-reservation land was relinquished to the United States. 


Eight months later, on November 2, 1889, Dakota Territory was organized into North Dakota and South Dakota and both were established as states of the United States of America. On that day, South Dakota acquired fee patent deeds to almost all of the Lakota lands within its borders that had been taken by the United States in 1877 and 1889. These lands can be owned by anyone or any entity able to afford the purchase price and the property taxes. Title to the lands that comprised the five reservations, established earlier that year, was retained by the United States in trust for the five tribes and their citizens.

Land held in trust for tribes is called “tribal trust land,” whereas land held in trust for tribal citizens is “allotted trust land.” These trust lands, like all federal lands, are exempt from property taxes. Trust lands can only be owned by tribes and their citizens. For any other person or entity to own this land, its title must be transferred from trust to fee status. On the day the transfer is accomplished, property taxes on the new fee title land are due, and typically must be paid within 30 days. 

From November 2, 1889, to November 2, of 1907, there were only two days when titles to Pine Ridge Reservation lands were transferred from federal trust status to South Dakota fee status. None of these titles were transferred for nearly 12 years after South Dakota became a state. But on July 1, 1901, transfer of title was accomplished on 20 parcels of reservation lands. Then, six years later, on September 26, 1907, this transfer of title was again accomplished, but this time it involved 660 parcels of land in Pine Ridge Reservation. Yet by the end of that year, only one additional title was converted. 

Something happened on July 1, 1901 and September 26, 1907. Whatever it was, the transfer of Indian trust lands to South Dakota fee status was set in motion. That transfer was so fast that in the portion of Pine Ridge Reservation that is Bennett County, the percentage of trust lands fell from 96.5% in 1913 to 42.1% in 1960 to only 25% in 2013. Some of those transfers were by dishonest and illegal means, including forcing tribal citizens to accept fee patents on their allotted trust lands. Still, today, South Dakota and Bennett County continue to fight for the titles to trust lands. Until the state and county explicitly repudiate this practice, the titles to Indian trust lands remain under threat of being extinguished. 

(This article is also published in Lakota Times.)