UW, Tuskegee Get $3.5M to Aid Minority Landowners

By Brian Peters, The Capital Times/Medill News Service

WASHINGTON -- The University of Wisconsin and Tuskegee University in Alabama have been awarded a $3.5 million grant from the Department of Agriculture to co-direct a center to preserve minority ownership of rural land nationwide.

The Center for Minority Land and Community Security will be the first in the nation to bring together African-American farmers from the South, Latino farmers and landowners from the lower Rio Grande along the Mexican-U.S. border and American Indians, according to Gene Summers of the UW-Madison Land Tenure Center.

"One of the major commitments of the center is focused on community legal education," Summers said.

"The center's emphasis is on developing and strengthening the leadership of the people who live in these communities, increasing their ability and skills in addressing land issues without being dependent on university faculty, law firms or governmental agencies."

In Wisconsin, the problem has been characterized more by splitting land into small pieces rather than simple loss of American Indian land. The 1887 Allotment Act, which parceled out much of the reservation land across the country, started the process of splitting ownership into small fractions.

If an American Indian family was given a 100-acre plot in 1887 and the elder of the family didn't leave a will, the land commonly would be divided among the elder's heirs.

"Over time, if that continues, the number of heirs to a small piece of land goes up exponentially," Summers said. "On the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation, there is a 40-acre plot of land that has over 1,100 heirs."

This has led to difficulty in obtaining access to federal loans and other government subsidies.

"A lot of the Indian farms are not owned by individuals, and a number of the (Agriculture Department) programs are not designed for collectively owned farms,'' said Colien Hefferan, a department administrator.

On the Menominee reservation 60 miles northwest of Green Bay, residents fought the Allotment Act.

"The leadership in the past felt that land held in communal ownership was the best way to go," said Larry Waukau, president and chief executive officer of Menominee Tribal Enterprises. "The land is in trust for the whole tribe."

Because of this, the Menominee have been able to avoid the fractionalizing of their reservation land.

Menominee (experience)is unique to tribal land management," he said. "We are probably at the top of the food chain in terms of sustainable forestry management."

Waukau has seen the effect allotment has had on other American Indian reservations in Wisconsin.

"On other reservations where allotments were made . . . the land has become fractionalized," he said. "That has made the land extremely difficult to manage."

The center will try to help minorities at the grassroots level, working with organizations like the Federation of Southern Co-ops, the Indian Working Group and the Land Grant Institute.

"Ultimately, these satellite groups will take over the function of the center," Summers said.