Troy "Scott" Weston serves as president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Photo: Lance Cheung / U.S. Department of Agriculture

Three tribes sign cooperative agreements for Cobell land program

The original post contained an incorrect figure about the acreage that was restored to the ownership to the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The correct figure is around 293,000 acres.
Three tribes have signed cooperative agreements for the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations, with two of them returning to the initiative that was established through the Cobell trust fund settlement.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe participated in prior rounds of the program, during the Obama era. But they are back on the agenda after the Trump administration shifted course and decided to refocus on reservations with high levels of fractionated lands.

Joining them for the first time is the Santee Sioux Tribe. All three are partnering with the Department of the Interior in hopes of strengthening ownership of their homelands.

“Our partnerships with tribal nations recognize the importance of tribal sovereignty and support tailored implementation of the Buy-Back Program at each unique reservation,” said Tara Sweeney in her first official press release as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the Trump administration. “Each tribe’s input and involvement is critical for outreach to landowners and overall effective implementation of the program. Landowners and the Buy-Back Program benefit tremendously from the significant contributions of our tribal nation partners.”

Tara Sweeney, the newly-installed Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, poses with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke at Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo: U.S. DOI

The Oglala Sioux Tribe was the first to sign up for the program after it got off the ground in late 2013. During the Obama era, more than 9,300 individual Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota received nearly $111 million for their fractionated lands according to sales data from Interior. The equivalent of about 293,000 acres was restored to tribal ownership as a result.

“The Oglala Sioux Tribe is pleased to enter into an agreement with the department,” President Troy “Scott” Weston said in Interior's press release. “Through this agreement, we look forward to providing outreach to tribal landowners regarding the Land Buy-Back Program. Our collaboration with the department will enable landowners to voluntarily sell their fractionated trust land interests in order to benefit our tribe.”

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe also benefited during the Obama years. According to sales data, about 1,200 landowners on the reservation in Montana were paid almost $9.9 million for their fractional interests. The equivalent of about 20,000 acres was returned to the tribe.

“This is the second time our tribe will be involved in the purchase of fractionated trust land from individual Indian landowners," President L. Jace Killsback said. "Consolidating our tribal land base has been a priority for decades as it allows us to make better culturally-based resource management decisions, more opportunities to increase economic development and housing opportunities, strengthen tribal sovereignty and most of all to preserve the sacredness of the land for the coming generations.”

The Santee Sioux Tribe is looking forward to seeing some of those same successes on its reservation in Nebraska. According to a 2016 Interior report, nearly 1,900 landowners might see offers in the coming months.

“We are thankful for the opportunity to purchase from those members or stakeholders who wish to sell their interests in allotted lands to the Santee Sioux Nation,” said Chairman Roger Trudell. “It provides the nation the opportunity to strengthen its Land holdings and we are grateful for this opportunity provided to us by the Land Buy-Back Program.”

The Land Buy-Back 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 initiative.

As of August 10, individual Indians have received more than $1.27 billion for their fractional interests. The equivalent of 2.168 million acres has been restored to tribes, the original owners of the land.

Taking into account a $285 million administrative fee that goes to the BIA, the program has about $345 million remaining in the account.

With the funds drying up, the Trump administration last July announced a change in the program's direction. Interior cut back the number of reservations that were to benefit from around 70 to just 20. Affected tribes weren't told in advance or consulted prior to the decision.

Of the 20 still on the implementation schedule, 12 represent reservations where landowners previously saw offers. 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 by a family from the Fort Peck Tribes.

Despite the shift, "new" money isn't actually going out to Indian Country. Offers are being drawn from the same amount of funds that went out during the initial implementations, according to Interior's data.

Participation in the program is entirely voluntarily. Of those landowners who have received offers for their fractional interests, about 45 percent nationwide have accepted.

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

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