Jewell announces $107M for Blackfeet land buy-back

Great Falls Tribune

by David Murray

Twenty years after Blackfeet social activist Elouise Cobell filed a historic lawsuit demanding the federal government account for generations of exploitation and mismanagement of tribal land across the United States, Cobell’s own people stand ready to receive their compensation.

On Tuesday, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell arrived at the Blackfeet Reservation to sign a compact allocating $107 million to buy back land allotted to tribal members 130 years ago, and then transfer control of these “trust lands” over to the Blackfeet tribal government.

It is only a fraction of the $1.9 billion approved by Congress and signed into law as result of the Cobell lawsuit.

“I think history will say we hit a vital turning point before we drove off a cliff,” Jewell said of the significance of the day’s events. “We hope that this says, let’s bury the sins of the past, of which there were many by the federal government not upholding its trust and treaty obligations to our nation’s first people.”

In 1996, Cobell filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that for more than a century the U.S. government failed to collect or disburse revenues generated by mining, oil and gas development, timber harvesting and grazing on Indian reservations throughout the United States.

Investigations into the federal government’s activities revealed the U.S. Department of the Interior had no accurate records for hundreds of thousands of Indian beneficiaries, nor could it account for the billions of dollars covered in the lawsuit. Presiding U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth described the Interior Department’s record of oversight as “fiscal and governmental irresponsibility in its purest form.”

The $1.9 billion Cobell settlement was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2012. It remains the largest single civil court payout in U.S. history. A large majority of that settlement – $1.56 billion – was set aside to purchase “Indian Trust Lands” and reform a broken system of land ownership that has plagued reservations for more than century.

Near the end of the 19th century, Congress enacted a series of land acts that divided reservations into individual allotments for Indians, and sold unallotted land to non-Indians for settlement. Indians were believed to be incapable of handling their own land affairs, so the land was held “in trust” by the Department of the Interior for the benefit of their heirs. Tribal members were given restricted title to individual parcels of reservation land, but were not allowed to partition or sell the land without the permission of the federal government.

As the original allottees died, their interest in the land was divided on paper and distributed to an ever growing list of the decedent’s heirs. Today, many allotments have hundreds or even thousands of individual owners, making them nearly impossible to develop.

According to data provided by the Interior Department, more than 812,000 acres of the Blackfeet Reservation – roughly 60 percent of its total area – is partitioned into this fractionated status. These fractionated lands are divided among 6,747 individual tracts and claimed by 8,164 separate owners.

Because of the difficulty in gaining landowner consensus on how to use the land, allotments often lie idle and can’t be used for any beneficial use.

“Right now a single fractionated acre could have more than 100 names on it,” Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes said. “It’s really almost unusable.”

The buy-back program, funded through the Cobell settlement, is an attempt to rectify this untenable situation. Fractionalized tracts will be individually appraised and a fair market buy-back offer extended to each of the identified owners. Once the sale is complete, the lands are immediately transferred to tribal government jurisdiction, preventing further fractionalization.

The tribe can then use the land to benefit its community; for example to build homes, community centers, businesses or to preserve them for environmental or cultural purposes.

The buy-back program is entirely voluntary. Nationally, the acceptance rate for buy-back offers on the reservations has been around 40 percent. In Montana, the buy-back “take rate” on the Crow and Fort Belknap Reservations was closer to 60 percent.

“Right now we’re in the educational phase of the buy-back program for the Blackfeet,” Barnes said. “There’s won’t probably be any actually offers go out until the fall; we hope September or October. We’re not sure what our take rate will be, but we have $107 million allocated for the Blackfeet buy-back program. We should have plenty of money for members who voluntarily choose to sell back.”

Barnes said the most immediate benefit to the tribe would be an added revenue stream from grazing leases.

“The easiest way for the tribe to access that valuable resource is to lease the land out to our local ranchers for grazing,” he said. “We will probably just leave much of it in the lease program unless we get a large enough block that can be used for an agricultural development program. Part of our agricultural development plan is to take back some of our tribal ranches and plant them in a good Timothy hay that we can then export overseas for compressed hay.”

Jewell said the lasting legacy of Cobell and the many tribal leaders who have fought hard for tribal rights would be a more secure future for the generations to come.

“We hope it will be a future that looks forward to determine what direction Indian country will go in the future,” she said. “Determining their own future through self-determination, self-governance and through a government to government relationship with the us, because these were the lands that were taken from them.”