A "Santee Warriors" school bus on the Santee Sioux Nation in Nebraska. Photo: Alli Eminov

Shutdown isn't slowing down Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations

By Acee Agoyo

The partial closure of the federal government isn't preventing the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations from carrying out its mission in Indian Country.

Nearly 1,600 landowners on the Santee Sioux Nation in Nebraska received more than $2 million for their fractional interests, the Department of the Interior announced on Thursday. Interested sellers have until February 25 to respond, shutdown or not.

“The Buy-Back Program is working in close coordination with the Santee Sioux Nation to conduct outreach and promote informed decisionmaking by landowners who receive purchase offers,” program director John McClanahan said in a press release. “These offers are a unique opportunity for landowners to receive fair market value payments for their fractional interests and for the Santee Sioux Nation to further advance its goal of strengthening its land holdings.”

The shutdown, which began December 22, isn't slowing down offers that previously went out to Indian Country either. Landowners from the Northern Cheyenne Nation in Montana just saw their acceptance window close this past Monday despite the lapse in federal appropriations.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on offers for nearly 4,000 landowners on the neighboring Crow Nation. Interested sellers have until February 11 to respond, regardless of the outcome of the shutdown.

The continuation of the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations (LBBP) reflects its unique standing within the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. The initiative was funded by the $3.4 billion settlement to the Cobell trust fund lawsuit so its work can occur independent of the impasse.

"The Settlement provides $1.9 billion for a Trust Land Consolidation Fund for Interior to acquire fractional interests in trust or restricted land within ten years, at fair market value, from willing individual Indian sellers," the OST shutdown contingency plan reads. "OST’s Field Operations has four positions that are funded by the LBBP; conducting this work are considered exempt."

Additionally, OST employees can continue to perform "critical" services for Indian Country through the shutdown. This includes "efforts related to the Cobell settlement claimant and class member database," according to the contingency plan, as well as operation of the Trust Beneficiary Call Center, which is responsible for handling inquiries from individual Indians whose funds are held in trust by the federal government.

The Land Buy-Back Program was designed to address the fractionation of Indian lands. Over time, parcels become owned by a growing number of individuals, making it more difficult to manage and create economic opportunities.

Since the first offers went out in December 2012, more than 65,000 individual Indians have accepted payment for their fractional interests, according to sales data from the program. They have received more than $1.3 billion for their holdings.

Another goal of the program is to promote tribal self-determination. Since 2012, the equivalent of more than 2.26 million acres has been restored to tribal governments, the original owners of the land.

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

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