Report finds Colorado was built on $1.7 trillion of land expropriated from tribal nations

Jun 14, 2024, 5:01 AM

A report published this week by a Native American-led nonprofit examines in detail the dispossession of $1.7 trillion worth of Indigenous homelands in Colorado by the state and the U.S. and the more than $546 million the state has reaped in mineral extraction from them.

The report, shared first with The Associated Press, identifies 10 tribal nations that have “aboriginal title, congressional title, and treaty title to lands within Colorado” and details the ways the land was legally and illegally taken. It determined that many of the transactions were in direct violation of treaty rights or in some cases lacked title for a legal transfer.

“Once we were removed, they just simply started divvying up the land, creating parcels and selling it to non-Natives and other interests and businesses,” said Dallin Mayberry, an artist, legal scholar and enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe who took part in the Truth, Restoration, and Education Commission, which compiled the report.

“When you think about examples of land theft,” Mayberry continued, “that is one of the most blatant instances that we could see.”

The commission was convened by People of the Sacred Land, a Colorado-based nonprofit that works to document the history of Indigenous displacement in the state. The commission and its report are modeled after similar truth and reconciliation commissions that sought to comprehensively account for genocide and the people still affected by those acts and governmental policies.

The report also recommends actions that can be taken by the state, the federal government and Congress, including honoring treaty rights by resolving illegal land transfers; compensating the tribal nations affected; restoring hunting and fishing rights; and levying a 0.1% fee on real estate deals in Colorado to “mitigate the lasting effects of forced displacement, genocide, and other historical injustices’”

“If acknowledgment is the first step, then what is the second step?” Mayberry said. “That’s where some of the treaties come in. They guaranteed us health and welfare and education, and we just simply want them to live up to those promises.”

That could look something like what happened not long ago in Canada, where, following the conclusion of a truth and reconciliation commission in 2015, the government set aside $4.7 billion to support Indigenous communities affected by its Indian residential schools.

The U.S. currently has no similar commission, but a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla), a Chickasaw Nation citizen, and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan), a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, would establish a commission to research and document the long-term effects of the Indian boarding school system in the U.S. That measure passed the House Education and Workforce Committee on Thursday with bipartisan support.

“The United States carried out a federal policy of genocide and extermination against Native peoples, and their weapon against our youngest and most vulnerable was the policy of Indian Boarding Schools,” said Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee Tribe, who testified before Congress in support of a commission to investigate the ongoing effects of the boarding schools.

“The next step is reconciliation and healing for the generations who’ve dealt with the trauma that followed, which begins with establishing the Truth and Healing Commission to investigate further,” Barnes said.

The 771-page report also calls on Colorado State University to return 19,000 acres of land that was taken from several tribal nations through the Morrill Act, signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, which used expropriated land to create land grant universities across the country.

In 2023 the university pledged to commit $500,000 of the earnings from its land grant holdings. But while the commission commended that decision, it said “there are questions about its adequacy, given the resources that have been generated by the endowment created by selling and/or leasing stolen land.”

A university spokesperson told AP that the school has not had a chance to review the report but noted that “that revenue from the endowment land income fund is used for the benefit of Native American faculty, staff and students.”

The commission also found that Native American students in Colorado have lower high school graduation rates and higher dropout rates than any other racial demographic. It determined that state schools teach about Native American issues only once in elementary school and then again in high school U.S. history classes, and it called on the Colorado Department of Education to increase the amount of its curriculum that focuses on the histories, languages and modern cultures of tribal nations that are indigenous to the state.

The education department said in a statement that it is “committed to elevating and honoring our Indigenous communities.

“We have worked alongside tribal representatives to create a culturally affirming fourth-grade curriculum focused on Ute history fourth-grade curriculum and have made this available to our school districts and educators,” the statement added.

However that educational program is not mandatory across Colorado, where curriculum decisions are made at the local level.

A 2019 study found that 87% of public schools in the U.S. fail to teach about Indigenous peoples in a post-1900 context and that most states make no mention of them in their K-12 curriculum.

“They should be an integral part of the curriculum, especially in areas where there’s a high percentage of Native Americans,” said Richard Little Bear, former president of Chief Dull Knife College in Montana and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. “There’s gotta be a full scale effort.”


Brewer is an Oklahoma City-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on X at @grahambrewer

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Report finds Colorado was built on $1.7 trillion of land expropriated from tribal nations