Interior releases $1.9B plan to buy Indian land

February 2, 2012 - 8:35 PM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Federal officials Thursday released their proposal on how they plan to spend up to $1.9 billion to buy up Native American-owned fractionated lands and turn them over to tribes.

The program is a major part of the $3.4 billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by the late Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., over Indian land royalties mismanaged by the government for more than a century.

The program aims to reduce the number of fractionated lands within 10 years by prioritizing tracts with the most individual owners, finding landowners willing to sell and targeting land that can be bought with little preparatory work and where controlling interest can be gained quickly. The program is for voluntary for people willing to sell their individual allotments.

Land fractionation was caused by the 1887 Dawes Act, which split tribal lands into individual allotments often inherited by multiple heirs with each passing generation. In some places, individual allotments now have dozens to more than 1,000 individual owners.

The Interior Department has identified 88,638 fractionated land tracts owned by nearly 2.8 million people.

John Dossett, the general counsel for the Native Congress of American Indians, said the draft proposal appears to address most of the tribes' major concerns. Of particular importance was that the tribes be involved in implementing and administering the land consolidation program through cooperative agreements, which are addressed in the draft plan.

There is still room for discussion in other areas, such as how the lands are to be appraised and whether the Interior Department should place liens on the acquired land, but it appears the government is making good on its pledge to have an open discussion, Dossett said.

"It's a problem that has been sitting around for a hundred years or more," he said. "I think tribes are really interested in doing this right. You don't get a do-over on $1.9 billion."

Out of the $1.9 billion allotted the program through the Cobell settlement, only 15 percent, or $285 million, can be used for administrative costs. Another $60 million will be used for scholarships for Native American students.

The draft plan was compiled after a series of meetings last summer and fall with tribal representatives in Montana, Minnesota, Washington, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

The proposal is open to public comment for the next 45 days. The Cobell settlement is still being appealed, and the land consolidation plan won't be implemented until those appeals have run their course.

Under the settlement, another $1.4 billion would go to compensate individual Native American account holders. The settlement is being challenged by four people in separate appeals.

Their issues with the settlement include claims that it did not achieve the lawsuit's goal of accounting for how much money actually went missing from those land trust accounts and that the tribes should have been involved in the lawsuit from the beginning.

Cobell died in October, just months after the settlement was approved by federal judge in Washington, D.C.

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A copy of the draft proposal can be found at http://on.doi.gov/AjyzqM