Politics & Government

U.S. gears up for huge, difficult land buyback for Indian tribes

After bungling the management of Indian lands for generations, the federal government wants to make amends by spending nearly $2 billion to buy 10 million acres of land for 150 tribes across the nation.

That’s roughly twice the size of Massachusetts and would mark the largest expansion of the U.S. government’s land trust for tribes, which now covers 46 million acres.

To make the plan work, the government wants to find willing sellers to buy back reservation land it first gave to individual tribal members in 1887, often in tracts of 80 to 160 acres.

“We can improve Indian Country if people will go along with this program and sell their interests back to their tribes,” Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said in an interview.

It won’t be easy. With the land changing hands over the decades, many parcels now have hundreds or thousands of owners.

Congress signed off on the land buy in 2010 to settle a lawsuit. The government had pledged to keep track of all royalties generated from the land for such things as grazing or logging, but that money never went back to benefit tribal members as promised.

Now, with so many owners involved, tribes complain that it’s nearly impossible to get the permission needed to develop or lease the land.

Yet even though the government doesn’t expect to make its first purchase offer until the end of the year, critics already predict the worst. They fear too many tribes will be overlooked in the buying spree and that many private landowners will get bullied into sales.

In California, which has more federally recognized tribes than any other state except Alaska, only one tribe stands to be among the top 40 beneficiaries.

“There’s no love for California Indian Country,” said Gabriel Galanda, a Seattle lawyer and a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Mendocino County, Calif. He called the program “a disaster” in the making.

When tribal leaders met with government officials in Seattle, Chief James Allan of Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Tribe complained that 45 percent of the money will go to just seven tribes.

“We’re all going to be fighting for scraps,” he said.

The plan calls for the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to buy back more than 92,000 parcels from private landowners. The effort, expected to last until 2022, will begin with pilot projects in Washington state, Montana and South Dakota.

Many property owners, with close ties to the land, are expected to be reluctant sellers.

“This is a modern day retaking of the land and, given the historical implications of that, they don’t want to relive it,” Les Riding-In, assistant dean and director of graduate studies at the University of Texas-Arlington and a member of the Comanche Tribe, said in an interview. “It’s reminiscent of how the government took the land back when colonization was happening.”

Riding-In said his family has decided not to sell its land in Oklahoma because the property represents a link to the past and “something that’s of value to us as an identity issue.”

He predicted that federal authorities will encounter resistance from many tribal members likely to be suspicious of any offers coming from Washington.

“It’s just a huge undertaking,” Riding-In said. “The trust factor is not high enough for most people to give up what they have.”

All of this will complicate the job facing the BIA’s Washburn, President Barack Obama’s point man on selling the plan.

“This program will be successful on the ground only to the extent that tribal leaders themselves get behind it and evangelize for it,” said Washburn, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. “There’s always a trust issue, and the track record hasn’t been very good.”

But he defended the targeting of the program, saying, “It seems sensible to us to go where the problem is most severe and where people are suffering the greatest from the problem.”

Tribal officials say it’s difficult for them to get permission from multiple owners when they propose using land for economic development or anything else.

“We are in an oil boom. . . . This is definitely slowing down progress for us,” Stoney Anketell, a councilman with the Fort Peck Tribes in Montana, said at the Seattle gathering. He said that if tribes can make more revenue off their land, they’ll need less federal assistance. “That’s the hope,” he said.

Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in Washington state, called the buyback program “a great opportunity,” both for individuals who want to sell their land and for tribes that will be allowed to acquire more property.

“It is a real win-win opportunity,” he said.

Most of the $1.9 billion will buy land in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions. The biggest expenditure is expected on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where the government estimates it will cost $126 million to buy back nearly 1.2 million acres.

Washburn said the program will be entirely voluntary.

“If we don’t have a willing seller,” he said, “we can’t purchase the property.”

But critics are skeptical, saying that federal law will still allow tribes to ultimately force unwilling minority landowners to sell once they’ve acquired 51 percent ownership of any individual parcel.

If there’s a lack of trust in Indian Country, it’s easy to trace.

In 1999, a federal judge said the Interior Department’s handling of Indian land constituted “fiscal and governmental irresponsibility in its purest form.” It began with the General Allotment Act of 1887, which allowed parcels of land to be allotted to individual tribal members. After promising to hold the land in trust and keep track of all royalties, the government kept poor records and failed to use the money to aid tribal members. That eventually prompted the lawsuit, filed by the late Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana.

Washburn told tribal leaders in Seattle that they should try to overcome emotional attachments to the land by arguing that it’s “patriotic” for tribes to restore their homelands.

He told them it would be a daunting task to spend the money wisely but that his dream is to show Congress within five years that the effort has been successful.

Then, he said, “we can go back and ask for more and be trusted that it will be well used.”

Galanda, the Seattle lawyer, questioned why the same government agency that mismanaged Indian trust land should now be trusted to provide a fix.

“Funding the agency to correct the problem they caused is not a prudent use of taxpayer dollars,” he said.

And some larger tribes would rather do the job without any involvement from the federal government.

“Give us the funding and we will administer our own buyback program,” said A. Gay Kingman, executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association in Rapid City, S.D., a group of leaders from 16 tribes in the Dakotas and Nebraska.

To prepare for the massive effort, the Interior Department, which controls 20 percent of all land in the U.S., is busy adding both employees and offices. The settlement allows the department to spend 15 percent of the $1.9 billion, or up to $285 million, on administrative costs.

So far, Washburn said, only 10 of the 100 employees who will run the program have been hired. But the department has created a new Buy-Back Oversight Board, chaired by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. And plans are in the works for three new land “acquisition centers,” in Billings, Mont., Aberdeen, S.D., and Albuquerque, N.M.

“It’s very important for us to get it right,” Washburn said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the state that has the most federally recognized tribes. Alaska has the most.

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