Two measures are being processed by the Nevada Legislature that seek to grab public lands away from the federal government on grounds that the feds are not allowed to own land. (Article 4, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution makes reference to “property belonging to the United States,” but never mind.) The intention is for states to take over that land (“Never land,” RN&R, April 9).
But who says the states would get the land if federal title was extinguished?
If a miracle happened and the feds lost title to the land, and the matter was opened up legally, state governments won't necessarily be first in line. There are other groups with earlier claims to being sagebrush rebels, and Native Americans are at the top of the list. We're not talking about the famous but episodic land grabs, which are claim enough. We're referring to a more carefully plotted and institutionalized theft—the General Allotment Act of 1887.
That measure, also known as the Dawes Act, stripped tribes of the lands they held in common and parceled out individual plots of land to individual members. A lot of tribal land disappeared in the process. There was also—heh-heh—a provision in the law for “excess” tribal lands to be sold off, thus allowing whites to gain title to tribal lands.
The allotment policy was ended in 1934 as a result of the Roosevelt administration's Indian Reorganization Act (also known as the Wheeler-Howard Law or the Indian New Deal).
Over the course of those 47 years, the number of Native Americans in the U.S. increased by about a fifth. During the same period, the lands the tribes held fell by 65 percent, from 138 million acres to 48 million acres, according to an A.J. Liebling account of whites squatting on Nevada tribal land.
The Walker River Paiutes lost more than a quarter-million acres in 1906 alone.
This is an injustice that was administered and carefully recorded, so reversing the result and returning the lands to the tribes is entirely possible. But no one has ever tried. The tribes still claim their lost lands, but they don't employ rifles and violence to make their case.
Then there are the original Atlantic coast colonies. They were given land stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Second Charter of Virginia gave it land crossing North America from Jamestown to the Pacific. Virginia's latitudes are 36° 32' N to 39° 28' N. Extend those to the Pacific and Virginia would take possession of a portion of Nevada running from approximately just south of the Las Vegas Valley to Carson City, encompassing several counties.
By the way, references to turning western land “back” to the states or of “returning” it to the states ignores history—the West was never state land. It was acquired directly by the federal government through theft, treaty, aggression, purchase, and conquest at a time when few white men existed in the West, much less owned property.