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Delegation asked to reform Indian allotted land laws

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- Oklahoma's congressional delegation is being asked by the Five Civilized Tribes to come up with legislation to reform laws dealing with Indian allotted land.

Officials with the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole tribes say several pieces of existing legislation have helped strip Indian title from most of the restricted land in eastern Oklahoma.

The five tribes aren't interested in increasing their land base, but "just protecting the existing status quo," said David Mullon Jr., Cherokee Nation associate general counsel.

"The good land is already gone," said Perry Beaver, principal chief of the Creek Nation. "We're just trying to save what is left."

The tribes acquired the allotted lands in the 1800s when they were ceded to them by the U.S. government following the "Trail of Tears" in the 1830s, Mullon said.

The restricted lands later were allotted under federal law to individual Indians and numbered in the millions of acres in an estimated 40 counties. He said that acreage number has dropped considerably.

Since then, Mullon said, Indian titles to those lands have been removed, often because non-Indians gained control of the properties.

"Most of the land is in the hills. Most of it isn't worth very much," he said.

Mullon said the lost acreage often came into the possession of non-Indians through adverse possession, "where a person throws a fence over his neighbor's property and in 15 years the neighbor becomes the owner."

That has been legal in Oklahoma but not in most states, he said.

The tribal officials say members of the Five Civilized Tribes who have managed to retain land have had to hire private attorneys to begin probate or deed approval actions in state court in order to pass title to restricted lands.

That process, they said, makes the sale and probate of their property complex and costly.

As a result, thousands of acres of Indian lands in eastern Oklahoma have gone unprobated for years.

Chad Smith, chief of the Cherokee Nation, said the reforms proposed by the tribes would "give the allotted lands of the five tribes the same kinds of protection that other tribes have in Oklahoma and the rest of the United States."

If the Oklahoma delegation is successful in getting reform legislation through Congress, "It would be one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed for the five tribes in the past 50 years," Smith said.
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