Native Nations, #Landback, transfer statutes, public land ownership

Document Type



Federal public lands in the United States were carved from the territories of Native Nations and, in nearly every instance, required that the United States extinguish pre-existing aboriginal title. Following acquisition of these lands, the federal government pursued various strategies for them, including disposal to states and private parties, managing lands to allow for multiple uses, and conservation or protection. After over a century of such varied approaches, the modern public landscape is a complex milieu of public and private interests, laws and policies, and patchwork ownership patterns. This complexity depends on—and begins with—the history of Indigenous dispossession but subsequent developments have created additional layers of complication. Recently, a broad social movement, captured succinctly by the social media hashtag “#Landback” and including some American Indian tribes, has begun calling for the restoration of the nation’s lands to Native ownership, including the transfer of all public lands to tribal hands. This article aims to contextualize and assess the more recent history of the transfer of federal public lands to Indian tribes, which has often taken the form of the United States transferring such lands into trust ownership for the benefit of a particular tribe. The article is the first comprehensive collection and analysis of 44 statutes enacted by Congress from 1970 to 2020 that transfer ownership interests in public lands to federally-recognized Indian tribes. These statutes are bookended by the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico (1970) and the return of the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana (2020). Analysis of these laws surfaces common themes and provisions related to the political dynamics of such congressional actions and the terms of post-transfer tribal or federal management. In particular, the article relies on four primary case studies to provide background, context, and detail in illustrating these themes : (1) Blue Lake on the Carson National Forest to Taos Pueblo, (2) the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act, (3) Chippewa National Forest land to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, and (4) the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana. These examples are representative of the larger catalog of transfer statutes and demonstrate the variation and complexity associated with each individual transfer situation. Hopefully, this first-ever collection of these laws will provide a practical grounding and depth of understanding for those considering or advocating for “#Landback.” More broadly, these examples and the common themes that tie them together raise important questions about the historical and continuing patterns of public land ownership and control.



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