Think Long Term, But Start in the Community

This year, Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF) is celebrating its 10th anniversary operating as a community foundation serving “Indian Country”—generally defined as the land and communities within American Indian reservation boundaries as well as off-reservation trust lands. Since 2002, ILTF has invested nearly $20 million in grants and programs that support efforts to return control and management of Indian land to Indian people.

Our mission is bold: To recover some 90 million acres of Indian land alienated from Indian ownership and control. (You can learn more about how this happened on our website.) While we don’t expect to fully achieve our mission for 150 years, one of the biggest challenges in the first 10 years has been educating the general public about the ongoing loss of American Indian land and the devastating economic, social, and cultural effects it has on Indian people and their communities.

Many people are surprised to learn that across the United States, more than half of the land within reservation boundariesis owned and controlled by non-Indian people. As a result, Indian people have lost millions (arguably billions) of dollars in potential income from these alienated lands. In addition, lack of available land is the primary reason many Indian nations are unable to provide adequate housing, employment opportunities, and other essential community services for their tribal members. So, for example, even though the Leech Lake Indian Reservation has 622,336 acres of land within its reservation boundaries, only 27,561 acres, or 5 percent, are currently held in trust by the Leech Lake Band or individual owners. The remainder is owned by non-Indians.

From the start, our programmatic strategy included funding to build public awareness about an issue that was virtually unknown to most people. Surveys ILTF conducted of Indian Country in the first few years revealed that even Indian landowners had very little understanding of land tenure issues or the options they have for managing their own land and assets.

To address these substantial gaps, ILTF devoted approximately 80 percent of its program resources in the first five years to educational work. Some of the projects we funded included production and distribution of informational publications for Indian landowners; pilot projects that examined federal policies and approaches to Indian land consolidation and estate planning; and the production of a full-length documentary, “American Indian Homelands,” narrated by Sam Donaldson and shown on numerous television stations throughout the United States.

Support for these projects helped generate a broader awareness of the issues among our stakeholders and the general public and provided us with a solid launch pad for our other programs. During the next five years we started to invest more heavily in advocacy and direct service with Indian nations and landowners, though education has and always will remain a strong component of our work.

When considering support for efforts that address complex or widely misunderstood issues, foundations should recognize that there is real value in investing in public education, especially in the early stages. As philanthropists, our vision should always be long term; however, in order to create lasting change, we really need to start in the community.

To learn more about our work and to read our special edition10th anniversary annual report, visit our website.

Cris Stainbrook is president of Indian Land Tenure Foundation

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