Land in transfer to tribal ownership, tribal members disagree about effect of land buy-back program
August 4, 2014
Several tribes are getting their land back. A little over a month after President Barack Obama's historic visit to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, four more tribes have signed agreements with the U.S. Department of the Interior to participate in the Land Buy Back Program as part of the Cobell Settlement. "I signed into law the Historic Cobell Settlement, leading to the Land Buy Back Program," said Obama in his June 13 address to the Standing Rock Tribe in Cannon Ball, N.D. The program he referenced is a $1.9 billion fund to consolidate individual American Indian lands and restore them to Tribal Trust lands, he said.
The Department of the Interior announced July 9 that it had signed agreements with the Crow Nation, Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations in Montana, and announced July 16 that it had signed an agreement with the Standing Rock Reservation, which straddles the North and South Dakota border.
The Cobell Class Action
According to online reports, including a 2011 Washington Post news obituary, Elouise Cobell was a banker and accountant for Montana's Blackfoot Tribe. Also a tribal member, Cobell began a class action lawsuit in 1996 against the U.S. Department of the Interior, representing thousands of American Indians and claiming almost a century of fraud by DOI in its administration of American Indian monies. Generally at issue was how much money DOI had failed, either intentionally or through omission, to place in Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts for the lease of their land. The issue was made more complicated by the effects of the 1887 Dawes Act, which allotted 40, 60, 80 or 160 acres to an American Indian head of household. After 25 years, the owner could sell those lands to whoever he or she wanted, but more importantly, the same parcel of land was passed down in equal shares to each succeeding generation. This has resulted in parcels of land owned by hundreds and sometimes thousands of people, or what is called "fractionalized" land.
The Cobell case took almost fifteen years to resolve, changing names each time a new Secretary of the Interior was appointed and named Defendant in the case (Cobell v Babbitt, Cobell v Norton, etc.). A settlement of $3.4 billion was reached in 2010, with DOI agreeing to put $1.5 billion in an Administration Account to be paid into IIM accounts, and $1.9 billion towards purchasing fractionalized interests and returning the land, in trust, to the tribe at large. Additionally, every time a fractionalized interest is purchased, DOI will place funds in another account for "Indian access to higher education," up to 60 million dollars. Land consolidation has begun or is concluded on the Makah Reservation in Neah Bay, Wash., and the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations in South Dakota.
"To Strengthen Native American Communities"
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"President Obama has made clear his commitment to help strengthen Native American communities and I am proud that today we are continuing that momentum with the steady implementation of the Land Buy-Back Program," said Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael Connor in a DOI press release dated July 9.
"To date," says the same press release, "the Buy-Back Program has made nearly 33,000 purchase offers to owners of fractionalized interests, successfully concluded transactions worth more than $72 million and restored the equivalent of more than 203,000 acres of land to tribal ownership." To be clear, the program purchases interests from individual members and transfers title, in trust, to the reservation at large.
"The Crow Tribe has been focused on addressing fractionated lands on the Crow Reservation for decades. We continue to be committed to restoring the tribal land base, and are optimistic that the Cobell Land Buy-Back Program will provide critical funding towards these efforts, said Crow Chairman Darrin Old Coyote, Crow Agency, Mont.
Debra Colgan is the Land Buy-Back Program Director for the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Ft. Peck Reservation in northeastern Montana. She supervises a staff of two. "This is the first time the Tribe has had a Land Office," she says. The Ft. Peck Land Buy Back Program has been busy the last year buying fee-land and returning it to Tribal ownership with money from the earlier Salazar Settlement. "This is a very exciting endeavor for our tribe," she says. "This money will never be available again in my lifetime. We're making history here. It's revenue for the tribe and we're expanding our land base. We'll have that land forever." So far, of the $10 million allocated to the Ft. Peck Reservation from the Salazar Settlement, the Land Buy Back Program has purchased over 10,000 acres of fee-land, worth about $2 million and returned it to Tribal control.
"Our Chairman just signed a cooperative agreement with the Cobell Settlement. We'll do a mass appraisal this fall, and then send out what are called Packages to fractionated interest holders. We hope to have the money sometime around the end of 2014," she said. According to Colgan there are approximately 4,521 fractionated tracts, comprising 723,154 acres of land, with 114,546 purchasable fractionated interests and 10,903 associated landowners within the Ft. Peck Reservation. "Once they get those Packages, the owners have forty five days to decide whether to sell. And they do get to decide."
As part of the Cobell agreement, the Ft. Peck Reservation gets $640,710 "for allowable expenses incurred to implement the program," which includes "personnel, office space, equipment, leased vehicles, media, community information meetings, and locating tribal members whose wheareabouts are unknown."
"From A Paper Point of View"
Wendell Yellow Bull, Chairman of the Shannon County Commission, and member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation where purchase agreements in the program will soon be complete, has a lot of concerns.
He points out that technically speaking, no land has been returned to the tribes yet. "The Interior Department, they have all those deeds, or have to collect them and return them to the tribes, and I don't know when that's going to happen."
"What really started this whole mess was the probate system that we had down here for years and years, the owners had no say in how they disposed of their land," he says, explaining that the probate form was essentially a list of descendants and a signature, so it didn't matter if you signed one or not. "If they could have said, 'Ok, we're going to put this in trust for all our descendants,' then everybody would have had something."
"Also, what if there is a structure on the property? If it's a mobile home, well you can move that, but a solid structure, if they sell that land they'll have to lease it back from the tribe to keep that structure." Yellow Bull says he's heard rumors that parcels with structures on them have been sold through the program. "A lot of these parcels, if you and I lived on them, maybe we had a gentlemen's agreement that this part is mine and that part is yours, but if one of us sells, I don't know how that's gonna play out.
"And what about zoning, how is that land going to be zoned? Let's say you and I lived on this parcel of land, we had lived there in peace for a long time, and all the other people sold out, and one day we wake up and there's a truck outside. So we go outside and say 'what's going on?' And the guy says 'Oh the Tribe wants to build more housing here.' We didn't want more housing.
"This was all set up from a paper point of view, nobody thought about practical issues like water, electrical, zoning, stuff like that. That Cobell Settlement, they came up and told us what they were going to do and we said, 'Wait, how come you're throwing us into the mix and nobody even asked us?'" The stated reason that the Land Buy-Back Program started on reservations in the Northern Great Plains is that they have the highest concentration of fractionalized interests.
Yellow Bull also worries that some individuals, given a large influx of cash, are making poor decisions. "Everybody getting this money, they're buying man-made objects that deteriorate, like new cars, or they buy these fancy phones and then they have a monthly service contract."
"When these people have land, they have something. After they sell, they're landless." F