Lakota Country Times: County seeks compensation for trust lands

Bennett County in South Dakota is home to the part of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Photo by J. Stephen Conn

Bennett County: Natives Are Causing Bankruptcy
By Brandon Ecoffey
Lakota Country Times Editor

PINE RIDGE -- Indian Country has long suffered from the failed policies of the assimilation era. One unforeseen modern day victim of the war against Native culture might be counties bordering reservations.

The Dawes Act of 1887 that is called the General Allotment Act was adopted by Congress in 1887. The Act authorized the President of the United States to survey American Indian tribal land and divide it into allotments for individual Indians. The idea of abandoning communally held lands in exchange for private property flew in the face of traditional Lakota societal norms was intended to break the foundation of Indian life in the Untied States.

Those Indians who opted into the plan were give allotments of land and who lived separately from the tribe would be granted United States citizenship. The Dawes Act was amended in 1891, in 1898 by the Curtis Act, and again in 1906 by the Burke Act and would have varying impacts on different regions of the country. For places like Martin, South Dakota, that sit adjacent to an Indian Reservation, the result is a map checker-boarded with multiple patches of land that some of which are under federal trust status ,and others under the control of the State of South Dakota.

According to a resolution passed by Bennett County about one-fourth of its land base is comprised of Indian trust land. This land houses 45% of the county's population is not subject to state or county property taxes. This reality has, according to a resolution passed last month, resulted in a strain on services and the county facing bankruptcy. In response the county is believes that the federal government has a trust responsibility to provide tribal-citizens with funding for services normally paid for by the county and state.

Bennett County is asking that "a new Policy Statement be added to the SDACC Policy Statements to read as follows: SDACC supports lobbying the federal government to demand that the Congress of the United States live up to its obligations under the Supreme Court decision in Cherokee Nation versus Georgia, 1831, and provide funding adequate to fund the county services provided to and for Indian people living on trust lands in South Dakota Counties, if not in a direct payment of property taxes, then in some form of Impact Aid based on the trust land population in the county similar and to Impact Aid for Schools."

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The resolution reads:
"Whereas: All Indian trust lands are held in trust for individual Native Americans by the federal government; and

Whereas: Indian people living on Indian trust land have no personal obligation to pay property taxes on these trust lands; and

Whereas: Monies derived from property taxes are the majority of funds that provide for county services to all residents of the county; and

Whereas: Indian people who live on trust property in Bennett County are residents and citizens of the county. They live here, work here, send their-children to school here, vote here, hold public offices here, recreate here and are part of the local community; and

Whereas: Indian people who live on trust land consume county public services the same as any other county citizen; and

Whereas: Bennett County is obligated to provide county services to all residents of the county including Indian people living on trust lands; and

Whereas: The federal government pays no compensation, what-so-ever, to Bennett County for public services rendered to Indian people; and

Whereas: A Supreme Court ruling in 1831 (Cherokee Nation versus Georgia) determined that the federal government is responsible for all Indian peoples wants and needs; and Whereas: The population of Bennett County is 3,431 and approximately one-half of the county’s population is Native Americans. Only 853 citizens of Bennett County are private land owners and pay local property taxes. The burden on these tax payers is disproportionate, inequitable and overwhelming; and

Whereas: The economy of this rural county is agricultural and there are limited jobs available for the number of people living here and it is proven that unemployment contributes to poverty, alcoholism, drug use, violence and crime; and

Whereas: The federal government encourages Indian people to live here with subsidized housing and social programs in spite of the limited opportunity for employment. Most Indian people with marketable skills find employment in the county; however, unemployment at 7 percent is normal and many people are not looking for work; and

Whereas: Crime is increasing rapidly due to unemployment, alcoholism, and drug uses. Five years ago Bennett County was housing an average of 7 prisoners daily. Currently, the average is 17 prisoners per day at $50/day. Jail costs have gone from $216,302 to a projected $335,250 for the 2016 budget; and

Whereas: Bennett County has traditionally had a high per capita crime rate and is one of the most violent counties in South Dakota. Martin, SD is the third most dangerous town in South Dakota (Road Snacks, FBI Data) Martin is the smallest town to make the top ten in South Dakota. It earned its spot due to a recent increase in violent crime. Besides that, property crime rates have quadrupled in recent years; and

Whereas: Bennett County is paying over approximately $100,000 per year for court appointed attorneys because Bennett County has one practicing attorney that resides in the county and there is a need for so many attorneys because of the amount of crime; and Whereas: Bennett County spends an additional $80,000 for incarceration for juveniles at $295/day plus deputy overtime, mileage and administrative costs; and

Whereas: The current annual real estate property taxes for Bennett County is $3 million with $1.8 million to the County, $1.08 million to the school district and $157,400 to the City of Martin; and

Whereas: The property tax loss due to trust lands in Bennett County is estimated at over $1 million annually; and

Whereas: The federal government is effectively meeting its financial obligation on Indian reservations, but has abdicated its financial responsibility to counties with substantial Indian trust lands adjacent to reservations; and

Whereas: The county has opted-out of the State imposed property tax freeze for $350,000 for the next 5 years. The measure is a temporary stop gap measure; and

Whereas: The 853 property owners in the county will be disproportionately and unfairly impacted by the proposed property tax increase; and

Whereas: Bennett County remains in danger of bankruptcy should any future property tax opt-out fail.

The resolution was passed during the July meeting of Bennett County Commissioners. Read LCT for next week’s follow-up with Dr. Craig Howe on his presentation before the Bennett County Commissioner Meeting on Wednesday August 17.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

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