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Tribe reclaiming land lost after the Homestead Act

Tribe reclaiming land lost after the Homestead Act

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John Kemp left a boarding school and picked up a plow.

On a 160-acre plot south of Winnebago that the government gave him, he raised chickens and horses, and grew corn and oats. His wife, Emma, kept a garden.

When other farmers needed help, John would lend his equipment and muscle. When he needed their help, other Native farmers reciprocated.

Alice Saunsoci recalls with fondness growing up on her grandparents’ farm. She recalls the days that followed with far less affection.

We kitha, Kemp often would say to his granddaughter in his native Omaha: “They cheated us.”

* * *

As the nation celebrates the 150-year anniversary of the Homestead Act, Native people largely recall it opened up large swaths of public land to settlers, yet another salvo in a series of legislative efforts designed to deprive tribes of their lands and pave the way for westward expansion.

A later congressional act, the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, had a far greater impact on tribes as it took tribal lands and gave 160 acres to all heads of households within Native families. Surplus land was then sold to non-Native settlers. After 25 years, Natives who had received allotments and were deemed competent by the government could sell the allotments.

The loss of tribal lands through surplus land sales and through sales of allotments by individual Natives led to Native land holdings shrinking from an estimated 113 million acres in 1887 to about 47 million acres by 1932.

Natives that didn’t sell their allotments now had to pay property taxes on the land, a requirement that led many Native farmers to sell.

David Wishart, a historical geographer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the Dawes Act was part of a concerted effort by the federal government to erase tribal cultures. For the most part, tribal people didn’t understand the concept of personal property until the Dawes Act, and the act was meant to break up tribal lands and to change individual Natives into landowners and farmers.

“This program of assimilation (was) aimed at breaking up the communal nature of Indian societies, teaching them a sense of selfishness,” he said.

In Nebraska, the government paid the Otoe-Missouria 4.1 cents per acre for the surplus lands it took. The average payment for Native lands in the Northern Plains was 10 cents an acre, Wishart said. But tribes couldn’t use the proceeds. Rather, the government used the funds to pay for assimilation efforts to Americanize tribal people.

The Dawes Act also changed gender roles within tribal societies, forcing Native men to leave the range and work in the fields, where women often had worked, Wishart said. It forced Native women to work in the home, cooking and cleaning. Many Native men were unable to make the cultural shift and gave up farming, thereby losing any means to provide for their families.

Wynema Morris, an Omaha culture and history instructor at Nebraska Indian Community College in Macy, said many Omaha men couldn’t force themselves to take on what traditionally had been women’s roles.

“This is a major, major cultural shift here, cultural eradication of the male role,” she said. “Farming was for women.”

The result was a loss of identity and purpose for many Native men, many of whom resorted to alcohol and later drug abuse in order to blunt the pain of being unable to provide for their families, Morris said.

However, many tribes today -- among them the Winnebago and Omaha tribes of Nebraska – are buying back land lost through allotment and treaties. The Winnebago Tribe’s corporate arm, Ho-Chunk Inc., plans to use that land to establish a farming operation.

* * *

For more than 100 years, white farmers planted corn here, and corn stubble juts today from a tract northwest of Winnebago that the tribe bought in 1997.

Tony Wood stood here recently, surveying it, trying to envision early Native farmers harvesting corn.

“It took 125 years, but we finally assimilated into farmers,” said Wood, who will oversee Ho-Chunk Inc.’s farm.

Lance Morgan, CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., said the tribe has spent nearly $13 million buying back its former lands for nearly the past 15 years. The tribe had lost nearly 80 percent of its original 108,000-acre reservation through allotments and land sales but has regained about 10 percent of those original holdings through purchases.

“The government gave all our land away with the Homestead Act, and now, we have to buy it all back,” he said. “The irony is self-evident and annoying to us.”

The tribe and individual tribal members own more than 28,000 acres on the northeast Nebraska reservation. All of that land is leased to non-Native farmers.

The tribe recently passed an ordinance giving Ho-Chunk Inc. the right to match any lease offer to use those tribal lands. The policy allows the corporation to match the highest bid for land advertised by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Winnebago Tribe. The lands have become increasingly lucrative as a result of the recent boom in crop prices.

Morgan said Ho-Chunk Inc. is “celebrating” the Homestead Act’s anniversary by leasing lands from the tribe to use for the farm it hopes to launch yet this year. The effort to lease tribal lands began about two months ago and has yet to result in any major leases won by the tribal corporation.

However, Morgan said, the leases on several large tribal tracts will be up for renewal in the next few months and will give Ho-Chunk Inc. an opportunity to win those leases and launch the farm.

“We're making a comeback baby,” he said.

* * *

John Kemp was among the many Native farmers forced to give up his farming equipment, animals and crops to pay the taxes on his land after the 25-year grace period provided by the Dawes Act.

“He always felt like he was cheated, and I guess we were,” said Alice Saunsoci, Kemp’s granddaughter and a 73-year-old Omaha language instructor at Nebraska Indian Community College in Macy.

For many Native men, dreams of becoming successful farmers faded like the buffalo on the plains with the loss of farming equipment, crops and animals. Many lost their individual allotments, though Kemp managed to keep his. But his children and grandchildren never farmed the land again. The barns faded back into the land; trees replaced crops.

“To us older people, I would say we’re still mourning,” Sauncosi said. “We were part of the land. We belonged to it, and it belonged to us. We respected it very much. Whatever we did, we put back. Today, it’s not like that.”

Her grandmother’s experience with federal land policies left her suspicious of all white people.

“She didn’t allow whites to come into the yard,” Sauncosi said. “She didn’t trust them, and I understand why she didn’t trust them.”

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or


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