After decades of watching its homeland shrink, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is turning to gaming profits to buy back the reservation, a parcel at a time.
“We always said that gaming was a tool to enable us to do other things,” says tribal chairman Ernie Stensgar. “Land is a long-term investment.”
The tribe’s ruling body, the tribal council, is setting aside twenty-five cents of every dollar of gaming profits to purchase land. The money buys forest and farmland, which the tribe hopes will provide a steady source of income for generations.
Individually and collectively, the 1,300-member tribe owns only 70,000 acres of its 345,000-acre reservation.
“On our own reservation lands, we’re a minority landowner,” said Alfred Nomee, the tribe’s director of land services.
Tribal officials predict that their gambling windfall will be relatively short-lived. But the tribe expects the land - and the crops and timber it produces - to be around forever.
“This is our homeland,” said Nomee. “Our responsibility is to protect what we have and provide for future generations. We have to establish a stable economic base.”
A hundred years ago, the Coeur d’Alenes owned all 345,000 acres of their reservation. Congress signed a treaty in 1891 that prohibited the land from being opened to settlement or sold out from under the Indians.
Fifteen years later, Congress opened the reservation to settlement by white farmers, loggers and miners.
“All of a sudden, here comes the general allotment act and everyone’s land was sold,” said Nomee. “The tribe never agreed to that.”
The act gave tribal heads of household each 160 acres, and other Indian adults 80 acres apiece. All the remaining land was taken for whites.
Since the mid-1960s, the Coeur d’Alenes have slowly bought back reservation land, using federal loans and profits from timber operations.
“In previous years, we did lose land because the tribe didn’t have the money,” Nomee said.
In the last three years, Nomee said, the tribe has bought roughly 4,000 acres and parts of parcels totaling another 500 acres. At the Tribal Council’s March meeting, a quarter of the agenda items involved land purchases.
“We have a big list of people that want to sell their land,” said Stensgar. “A lot of people will only sell to the tribe.”
Starting this fall, if the Coeur d’Alenes’ National Indian Lottery performs as predicted, the tribe will be able to buy millions of dollars worth of reservation land. Nearly all would be used for timber and agriculture, which help fund the tribal government, education, health and welfare programs.
Nomee said news of the high-stakes game has already driven some optimistic landowners to ask for high prices.
“I think we’ll see more price gouging,” he said.
Both Nomee and Stensgar said it’s unlikely the Coeur d’Alenes will ever again own the entire reservation. Some lifelong non-Indian residents will never sell; others want too much money, Nomee said.
Still, he said, “Any progress is progress.”