Non-Natives Control 81% of Harvested Cropland and Capture 74% of Agricultural Revenue on South Dakota Reservations

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According to the most recent (2017) USDA Census of Agriculture for American Indian reservations, a total of $719 million in agricultural revenue was generated from agricultural production on reservations in South Dakota, yet only 23.87% of that revenue was collected by Native Americans, while non-Native farmers and ranchers collected the rest (76.13%). 

Additionally, 81.02% of the harvested cropland on South Dakota’s reservations is controlled by non-Native producers, compared to only 18.98% controlled by Natives. 

However, despite the great disparity between Native and non-Native producers, according to the data, agricultural revenue collected by Native producers on all reservations in the USDA Census has increased by 13.3% since 2012, while revenue collected by non-Native producers has decreased by 25.9%—a sign that the situation may be improving for Native producers. 

This data is all derived from the USDA Census of Agriculture for American Indian Reservations, for which the Native Lands Advocacy Project has created a helpful interactive dashboardThe dashboard includes data from the Cheyenne River, Lake Traverse, Lower Brule, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Standing Rock and Yankton reservations and includes a dimension for non-Native producers that is not published in the USDA’s original dataset. This new dimension was created by NLAP by subtracting Native production from the reservation total. 

NLAP's Agricultural Census Dashboard

Please note that the image below is from an outdated version of our USDA Census of Agriculture dashboard. The same data for South Dakota’s reservation can be viewed in our updated dashboard here

This screenshot shows NLAP's USDA Census of Ag Dashboard for South Dakota's Reservations, displaying data such as agricultural revenue collected by Native and non-Native producers.

This data demonstrates that Native Americans are not the primary beneficiaries of their lands and resources in South Dakota. Unfortunately, the national data identifies an even greater disparity. When you aggregate the data for all 73 reservations that participated in the 2017 Census, Native Americans captured only 12.89% of the agricultural revenue on reservation lands, while non-Native producers on reservation lands captured 87.11% of the agricultural revenue. 

The origin of this disparity on contemporary Native lands can be traced back to the General Allotment Act of 1887 and subsequent acts that broke up Native lands into parcels, and then opened them up to leasing by non-Natives or removed their trust protections, which allowed them to be liquidated to non-Natives. Additionally, evidence suggests that for the past 140 years, the Bureau of Indian Affairs favored leasing and/or liquidating lands to non-Natives over policies and programs that would promote greater Native control over reservation agriculture. See our timeline below of these policies below. 

Timeline of Exclusionary Agriculture Policies

Feburary 8th, 1887
The General Allotment Act
The competition over supposed "reserved" lands intensified with the passage of the General Allotment Act of 1887 (also known as the Dawes Act) which broke apart communal land holdings of tribes into individual allotments.
Feburary 8th, 1887
February 28th, 1891
Government Opens Native Lands for Leasing
The Act of February 28, 1891 amended the Dawes Act to give the Secretary of Interior the power to lease the lands of allottees for “reason of age or disability” for a period of 3 years for agriculture, 5 years for grazing, and 10 years for mining. "Disability" was a very loosely defined term and included unmarried and widowed women, children under 18, and "all those who are disabled by Native defect of mind"—a clearly racist classification.
February 28th, 1891
May 27, 1902
Government Starts Liquidating Reservation Lands
The Act of May 27, 1902, allowed the heirs of a deceased allottee to sell the inherited lands after being issued a fee patent by the Secretary of Interior. Five years later, this authority was broadened again with the Burke Act of May 8th, 1906, which expanded the authority of the Secretary to sell the lands of deceased Native Americans with the proceeds going to heirs.
May 27, 1902
February 21, 1928
Meriam Report Documents Deprivation Caused by Leasing and Land Sales
The 1928 Meriam Report excoriated the federal government's mismanagement of Native people and their lands and argued that the "leasing of Indian lands should be materially curtailed." The Meriam Report was influential in the adoption of restrictions on the fee patenting and liquidation of Native lands—but the practice of leasing continued.
February 21, 1928
Wilson Report Again Criticizes Government Leasing and Calls for Restoration of 25 Million Acres
The 1935 Wilson Report, which was commissioned by the U.S. President, also sharply criticized the Bureau's leasing operations. "The Office of Indian Affairs has for 30 years been doing an enormous real-estate business, selling and leasing the lands of its wards, with the income from the operations constantly decreasing while the cost of the real-estate transactions multiplied." This report called for the restoration of 25 million acres to enable tribes to be self-sufficient.
July 29th, 1976
41 Years After the Wilson Report, Very Little Has Changed
This 1976 Report for the American Indian Policy Review Commission states that "the BIA's preference for leasing keeps it from designing an agricultural development program. As a result, lack of capital and technology continue to plague Indian farmers and the BIA continues its leasing activities."
July 29th, 1976
November 18th, 1993
Congress Recognizes Failures of the BIA's Agricultural Support
The passage of the 1993 AIARMA Act, which set in place policies by which tribes could create their own Agricultural Resource Management Plans and thus exercise greater sovereignty over their agricultural operations, was accompanied by acknowledgments that the BIA's historical agricultural policies had failed. "Over the past 20 years, the Indian agriculture program operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs has fallen into serious decline. Funding levels for the Program have remained static and through inflation have been reduced to half or less of their former levels." However, this acknowledgment (and the passage of the AIARMA Act) do not amend the many obstacles Native communities still face.
November 18th, 1993

While tribes enjoy a degree of political sovereignty, it is compromised by the fact that most tribal lands and resources are held in trust by the federal government. Because of this unique relationship, the U.S. Supreme court has repeatedly affirmed and upheld the responsibility that the federal government has to protect tribal lands and assets and ensure they are used for the benefit of Native peoples. This responsibility is known as the Trust Doctrine. In 1977, the Senate report of the American Indian Policy Review Commission described the federal government’s trust obligation as follows:

The purpose behind the trust doctrine is and always has been to ensure the survival and welfare of Indian tribes and people.  This includes an obligation to provide those services required to protect and enhance tribal lands, resources, and self-government, and also includes those economic and social programs which are necessary to raise the standard of living and social well-being of the Indian people to a level comparable to the non-Indian society.

Today, many tribes and agriculture support organizations throughout Indian Country are taking proactive steps to reverse the damage caused by 150 years of exclusionary agricultural policies. But the challenge is great and the resources are too few to address numerous interrelated issues, including access to credit, fractionated land ownership, insufficient infrastructure and training, etc. As such, the federal government, as part of its moral and fiduciary responsibility to tribes, must play a large role in reversing the damage caused by 150 years of exclusionary agriculture policies. 

Written by David Bartecchi

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