Interior Department touts tribal homeland efforts as Obama era comes to an end

President Barack Obama at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C, on September 26, 2016. Photo: Pete Souza / White House

Helping tribes restore their homelands has been one of the major goals of the Interior Department and officials are touting their achievements as the Obama administration comes to a close.

In a new report, Secretary Sally Jewell said the department exceeded its goal of placing 500,000 acres in trust for tribes. And Deputy Secretary Michael Connor, during a visit to the Navajo Nation, announced a major milestone for the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations.

"This administration should be proud of the historic progress made to restore tribal homelands and strengthen tribal economies," Jewell said in an exit memo released by the White House on Thursday.

The twin achievements mean that more than 2 million acres of land has been restored to tribal governments since January 2009. Some of that came through the 2,000-plus land-into-trust applications that were approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs while a larger chunk was the result of the landmark Cobell trust fund settlement.

The settlement, which the federal government administration negotiated soon after President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, set aside $1.9 billion for a land consolidation program that benefits individual Indians as well as tribes. As of December 31, more than $1 billion has been paid to landowners for their fractional interests, resulting in the equivalent of more than 1.87 million acres restored to tribal ownership.

“The significant accomplishments we are announcing today come as a direct result of the close nation-to-nation cooperation we have had with sovereign tribal nations, such as the Navajo Nation,” Connor said in a press release on Thursday. “We’re already seeing the difference this program is making. In addition to the significant resources flowing into Indian Country, returning fractionated lands to tribes in trust has enormous potential to improve tribal community resources by increasing home site locations, improving transportation routes, spurring tribal economic development, and preserving traditional cultural or ceremonial sites.”

On the Navajo Nation alone, more than 25,000 individual landowners participated in the program. According to Interior, they were paid more than $108 million for their fractional interests and more than 155,000 acres was restored to the tribe.

While that number only represents a small portion of the reservation -- which is the largest in the United States -- tribal officials believe the program has been a success. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said it was crucial for land consolidation efforts to continue.

"We recognize Elouise Cobell for challenging the government and bringing about a historic settlement that made the Land Buy-Back Program possible,” Begaye said in Interior's release. “Consolidation of land is significant for the Navajo Nation because we have many checkerboard areas. It has been very good for the Navajo Nation to buy land back to turn it into trust land, and we appreciate all the collaboration and hard work that was put into the effort."

But while Obama officials are highlighting their efforts, the announcements put a spotlight on the uncertainty facing Indian Country as Republican president-elect Donald Trump prepares to take control of the federal government in just two weeks. He's said nothing about Indian policy since his historic election although his Native American Coalition has been reaching out to tribes to hear about their concerns.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who chairs the coalition, has called for the BIA to give more control to tribes when it comes to their homelands. That could mean streamlining or changing the land-into-trust process, although attempts to do that, either through legislation or with regulations, typically generate controversy.

"The land entrusted to tribes belongs to the Native American people, and it ought to be up to them alone to decide how to best use and distribute the resources on their own land," Mullin said in a statement last month in response to speculation about Trump's plans for Indian Country.

On the land consolidation front, tribes are running into big issues too. If the Cobell program continues at the current pace, the fund will run out in less than three years, so it would be up to Congress and the Trump administration to decide whether to continue the effort.

In the past, land consolidation was only funded with about $21 million a year, a figure that never really helped tribes or individual Indians. The money was never enough to address fractionation either, which occurs when a parcel of land is passed onto successive generations of individual Indians, resulting in multiple people -- or even hundreds and thousands -- sharing equal interests in the same property.

"Fractionation is a significant problem in Indian Country," Interior said in a Cobell status report in November. "When tracts have hundreds or thousands of co-owners, it is difficult to effectively use the land. As a result, many highly fractionated tracts are under-utilized, unoccupied, or unavailable for any purpose."

Prior land consolidation efforts also have run into legal problems because the U.S. Supreme Court has twice ruled that individual Indians must be justly compensated for their fractional interests, regardless of how small or how large.

The Cobell program is entirely voluntary and requires "fair market value" to be paid to landowners. Nationally, about 42 percent of individual Indians who have received offers have accepted them, according to Interior's data.

White House Exit Memo:
Toward a Bright Future: The Interior Department’s Record of Progress (January 2017)

Interior Department Report:
2016 Status Report: Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations (November 2016)

Interior Department Solicitor Opinion:
Applicability of the Indian Land Consolidation Act's Lien Provisions to the Cobell Settlement (August 2012)

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