Caressa James, the assistant director of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Land Management Office, opens the kick-off meeting before presentations on the Land Buy Back Program begin. Photo by Latoya Lonelodge
Land Management offers opportunities for Indian landowners
By Latoya Lonelodge
Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune
With each passing generation new problems arise in Indian country that threaten tribal sovereignty.
An ongoing problem amongst tribal landowners is fractionation. Due to the rise of fractionated land, landowners are encouraged to become more informed and educated on what land they own.
On Feb. 8, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Land Management Office (CALM) held a land buy back kick-off event at the Clinton Community Center in Clinton, Oklahoma. Other programs joined in an effort to inform and educate landowners including the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST), Tribal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Oklahoma Indian Legal Services (OILS). Informing and educating current landowners on the Land Buy Back Program is the main goal CALM hopes to achieve.
“The purpose of having the outreach meetings are to inform and educate our landowners about the Land Buy Back Program, also to make them feel comfortable about making informed decisions if they choose to become a willing seller and about the decision they’re going to make about their property,” Caressa James, CALM assistant director, said.
James said CALM wants to make sure landowners have a clear understanding when they make that decision.
“We’re doing outreaches to update them with any changes that are happening along with making them comfortable with any decision they do choose to make, this is a one time thing,” James said.
CALM plans to hold various outreach meetings through the year, starting with tribal communities. Although there are many landowners within the outlying communities there are several more who live outside of Oklahoma and the tribal land base.
“We have approximately a little over 6,000 eligible sellers and so that’s quite a bit to reach. We’re going to do our best to try and get out there, get the word out there, inform as many sellers as we can with this one time opportunity,” James said.
Information on the Land Buy Back Program is to educate tribal landowners on the seriousness of fractionated land. The program is a part of the $1.9 billion land consolidation from the Cobell Settlement to purchase fractionated land at fair market value. Fractionation is when a piece of land has multiple owners, the main concern with multiple heirs is diminished land that could have been put to better use for reasons such as agriculture or building homes.
Henry Ware, Fiduciary Trust Officer at the Concho Agency, discusses Individual Indian Money accounts and the importance of updating current contact information with the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. Photo by Latoya Lonelodge
Other concerns relating to land management are obtaining current contact information. Owners with Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts without current address information on file with OST are placed on the Whereabouts Unknown (WAU) list and are subject to miss out on land ownership opportunities. OST currently does not have contact information for approximately 33,000 Indian Trust Beneficiaries. Landowners need adequate information to make informed decisions in understanding their land, reviewing their options if they were to sell and considering all financial implications.
“One of the biggest issues in my office with owners is they know they have properties, they’re getting IIM accounts, but they’re not actually being proactive with their properties, knowing what’s going on with them and the whereabouts. This is a good avenue for us to speak to these landowners to show them and provide maps where their property is and also to follow up with them,” James said.
Cooperating with land buy back is a voluntary option but is also a time sensitive matter as they work primarily with tribes to reduce fractionation. There is a 10-year period ending in November 2022 for the $1.9 billion available to purchase fractional interests in land.
In the event that legal matters concerning landownership occurs, OILS was present during the kick-off meeting to provide legal advice. Stephanie Hudson, executive director of OILS, discussed the importance of estate planning and making wills.
“What we try to do is give landowners advice about their land. A lot of times landowners will get reports from the BIA or from OST and sometimes they can be really difficult to understand. What we do is we can go through the Individual Trust Interest report with the landowner and we can help them understand what their interests are and what types of land they have,” Hudson said.
One of the provisions for the Land Buy Back Program is that they cannot purchase land if it has producing minerals on it, Hudson suggested, “what we do is help the land owner navigate through that and figure out if they have one of those types of land because a number of people aren’t going to be able to participate in the Indian Land Buy Back. What we can do is offer them estate planning services and estate planning is a fancy word for just knowing who you want to give your property to and we can help you look at what land you own and we can help you understand what properties might be best to give to different family members and we can go through a thorough discussion with them on that.”
One of the primary issues within landownership that OILS recognizes is the use of wills. The American Indian Probate Reform Act (AIPRA) has specific procedures regarding wills that need to be followed before a will is properly accepted.
“There are a lot of people who had wills prepared by practitioners who don’t practice Indian law and sometimes they’ll try to draft a will that’s not in compliance with AIPRA. What we do is try to provide a lot of education to the Indian communities to let them know that we understand that process and we can do it for free,” Hudson said.
OILS is a legal provider for low-income Indians in Oklahoma that follow the national poverty guidelines. In the event that OILS cannot help an individual due to income they will refer that individual to other services who understand the AIPRA laws and can help assist them with a will. Upcoming events for OILS are will clinics starting in the upcoming springtime.
“What we’re trying to do this year is go out into the community and do more wills clinics, we probably do 15 to 20 wills clinics around the state every year and this year we’re going to try to do more because of the Land Buy Back Program, it’s really amping up right now so we’re trying to get out and do more work in community education,” Hudson said.
With the hope of reaching out to more landowners by holding outreach meetings, James suggests that tribal landowners are encouraged to contact the CALM office, “If there’s any willing sellers out there, I encourage them to contact the Trust Beneficiary Call Center. I also encourage any Indian landowners that have any issues, questions or concerns to contact the Land Management Office. We’ll be able to assist with what we can. We would like to work with as many land owners as possible to preserve and protect our land.”
For more information regarding the Land Buy Back Program visit oi.gov/buybackprogram. To contact the Trust Beneficiary Center call toll-free 1-888-678-6836 and to contact the Oklahoma Indian Legal Services call 800-658-1497. To search the WAU list of Indian landowners without current up-to-date information visit doi.gov/ost/wau
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