Representatives of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Photo: Peter

Umatilla Tribes enter cooperative agreement for Cobell land program

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have signed a second cooperative agreement as part of the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations.

The tribe was one of the first to benefit from the program. During the Obama administration, the equivalent of 10,172 acres was restored to tribal ownership in Oregon, with individual Indian landowners receiving more than $12.4 million for their fractional interests, according to data from the Department of the Interior.

The Trump administration is now prepared to give the tribe another go. As part of the new agreement, outreach meetings are being held in March to inform landowners about the program.

“By partnering with the Umatilla Confederated Tribes for a second round of implementation at their location, the department will build off of our successful initial implementation and maximize the use of the funds from the Cobell settlement,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs John Tahsuda said in a press release on Thursday.

Participation in the program is entirely voluntary. Once landowners are presented with offers for their fractional interests, they have 60 days to make a decision

After the individuals are paid, their interests are transferred to the tribe, the original owners of the land.

"The Umatilla Tribe welcomes the return of the Land Buy-Back Program to our reservation, which we see as a means to further our tribal priority of restoring our reservation land base as intended by our 1855 treaty with the U.S. government,” Chairman Gary Burke said in the department's press release.

The program was created by the $3.4 billion settlement to the Cobell trust fund lawsuit. To stem the fractionation of Indian lands, in which parcels become owned by a growing number of individuals, and to promote tribal self-determination, $1.9 billion was set aside for the buy-back.

Since the effort got off the ground in December 2013, the equivalent of 2.16 million acres have been restored to tribal ownership. More than 63,000 individual Indians have been paid over $1.26 billion for their interests, according to the department's January 26 data. (A February 23 update does not appear to provide a correct amount for cumulative sales.)

With the funds quickly drying up, the Trump administration last July announced a change in the program's direction. Without consulting tribes, the department cut back the number of reservations that were to benefit from the program from around 70 to just 20.

Of the 20 still on the implementation list, 12 represent reservations, such as Umatilla, where landowners previously saw offers. And of those repeats, five happen to be located in Montana, the home state of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a Navy SEAL veteran has been adopted into the Fort Peck Tribes.

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

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