Congress is updating the Stigler Act, the federal law governing the transfer of lands allotted to citizens of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee (Creek), and Seminole Nations, also known as the Five Tribes, before statehood. Amendments sponsored by Rep. Tom Cole passed the House and Senate, and are expected to be signed into law by the President.
These allotments are legally known as restricted status land. They are privately owned, subject to tribal jurisdiction, and exempt from state taxes. But they also have cultural and personal value.
“It's a tie back to the tribe that your family has always had, and people value that. They value having restricted Indian property in their families,” explained Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation’s Secretary of Natural Resources.
The Stigler Act made retaining land’s restricted status difficult, though. The original 1947 law required Indian land to be passed down to an heir with “one-half or more of Indian blood” in order to retain restricted status, and it applies only to the Five Tribes.
“As it stands now, if I am less than one half Cherokee, when that land passes from my parents to me it falls out of restricted status. It becomes another piece of Oklahoma,” explained Hill.
The Stiger Act is one of many laws designed to strip tribes of their land. Congress acted in numerous ways to dissolve reservations and divy up Indian territory before statehood in 1907. Parcels of tribal land were allotted to citizens of the Five Tribes through the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes, which was created in 1893.
Because of the Stigler Act, most allotments have lost restricted status. About 80 percent of land within the jurisdiction of the Five Tribes was restricted status in 1916. Today it is less than 2 percent, according to the Cherokee Nation.
“The purpose of the law was to take land out of restricted status and get it onto the tax rolls. They were trying to eliminate the tribes,” Hill said. “It’s been really successful.”
The amended Stigler Act will allow land to be passed onto Five Tribes descendants regardless of blood quantum without losing restricted status. Hill and other proponents hope the changes will allow families to hold onto the tiny fraction of restricted status land left in Oklahoma.
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