On a quiet Sunday in November, Cris Stainbrook had just finished an educational talk on Indian land issues at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis when the pastor slipped him an envelope.
"Here's a little something to help you get land back," said Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen.
Stainbrook was stunned to find a check for $250,000.
His group, the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, will use it as seed money for a fund to help recover land taken away from American Indian nations by organizations, institutions and governments in the past.
Last year, the foundation and another group were able to purchase and return more than 28,000 acres to the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. The land was previously owned by a timberland owner and lumber manufacturer.
"Bois Forte was the holy grail of a project," said Stainbrook, the foundation's president. "We've done everything from an acre or two in California to 28,000 at Bois Forte. "People look at a map of a reservation and see the boundaries and just assume they own it."
The Indian Land Tenure Foundation is a national organization based in Little Canada that came together by landowners, advocates and tribal leaders concerned about the challenges and injustices faced by Indian people in the management and ownership of land, he said. Started in 2002, the strategies to reverse these issues included educating Indian landowners on issues to restore land assets, cultural awareness on land ownership, economic opportunity through the purchase of previously taken property and legal reform to get that land back.
The foundation has given more than $11 million in grants for these initiatives, Stainbrook said. They have also started a national Indian carbon coalition to reduce climate change and generate sustainable income.
Since the 1880s, United States legislation has resulted in Native Americans losing ownership and control of 90 million acres, he said. In Minnesota, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe owns only 5% of its reservation land with the rest owned by two government agencies.
While the foundation has worked for two decades to return land, Stainbrook wishes the recent trend by institutions, colleges and cities and counties to formally announce they took Indian land and water showed actual ways the land would be restored. That includes funding to purchase property, he said.
Last month, the Hennepin County Board made public its own statement. A diverse community group worked on it for three years and the acknowledgement does say the county will look for potentially developing land and water-based projects on Indian land and strengthen cultural education. Stainbrook believes the county can do more and said he will reach out to officials.
"I admire the decades of work the foundation has done in land recovery and management, and I applaud their continued efforts," said Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene. "One aspect that is most exciting to me and also to our community, internal, and external partners is that this is a living initiative that will continue to evolve as our work deepens and our partnerships grow."
Stainbrook's relationship with Holy Trinity goes back several years because of its work to help people understand Indian history and culture. The church also acknowledged its building at 2730 E. 31st St. sits on Dakota land.
Before Holy Trinity's donation, he said the foundation wasn't pushing to get involved with land and water acknowledgements. A quick search found 150 entities in Minnesota had created such statements.
"Now that we have the money, we have to sort out what actions we can take," he said. "We will attempt to grow this new fund over time and use it to purchase land."
Rasmussen said after the church received some unexpected profits from the sale of property, the congregation decided to use the money for reparation payments.
"The money wasn't ours in the first place," she said. "We ought to give it back since we are on land that we aren't a resident. It's a call to provide transformational change."
The church didn't put any designations for the donation, she said. She hopes it will inspire others who have issued acknowledgements to back the statements with small or large amounts of funding.
"The donation gives the foundation another way to do land reclamation," Rasmussen said. "What a gift this is to us all."