Tribes, feds seek new start after $3.4B settlement

By Matthew Brown
Billings, Montana (AP) July 2011

Native American leaders called for a new era in their relations with federal agencies in the wake of the government’s recent $3.4 billion settlement for decades of mismanaging Native lands.

Representatives of Rocky Mountain and Great Plains tribes met with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in Billings to kick off a series of consultations in coming months to decide how the settlement money will be distributed.

The immediate focus was on $1.9 billion slated to consolidate tribal ownership of lands that have been “fractionated” over generations. Often, hundreds of people, even thousands, share ownership of individual parcels of Native land.

The situation has arisen as Native trust lands were passed down within families, with the number of heirs to individual parcels increasing with each new generation.

The government plans to use the settlement money to buy out those multiple interests when owners are willing. The land would then be turned over to tribes for their use.

Almost 14,000 square miles of land are eligible for the program, an area that combined is larger than Maryland. Ownership of tracts are split almost 4 million ways, according to the U.S. Department of Interior.

The number of parcels considered highly fractionated, meaning they have 50 or more owners, is 21,207.

As that sweeping program began to take shape Friday, tribal leaders said they hoped it signaled a new willingness on the part of the government to cooperate with Native communities. But with the government’s legacy of broken treaties and unkept promises to tribes, wariness remains on the part of many tribal leaders.

“Make us feel that our words, our testimony are being put to task,” L. Jace Killsback, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, said to Salazar during Friday’s meeting.

“What you see is an opportunity for the government to change that culture in Indian Country, change what the Bureau (of Indian Affairs) is and has been, and that is unaccountable to tribes,” he said.

Salazar said centuries of strained relations with tribes would take time to overcome. But he said the Obama administration was committed to that goal.

“When I became Secretary of the Interior, one of the things President Obama asked me to do was make sure were doing everything possible to make sure we are turning a new page” for federal-Indian relations, Salazar said.

“Tribes have not been treated right and they have not been treated fairly,” he added. “This is a historic opportunity. Never before has the United States of America set aside $3.4 billion to compensate for past wrongs.”

Additional consultations between tribes and the Interior Department are planned over the next three months in Minneapolis, Seattle, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Oklahoma City.

Unlike past instances in which the government moved unilaterally to deal with issues in Indian Country, federal officials pledged that the fractionated land program would not be finalized until those consultations are completed.

Recently, tribal leaders from Oklahoma, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and elsewhere said split land ownership is hobbling economic development within and around reservations.

They said banks often are reluctant to make loans that would be backed using fractionated lands as collateral. Similarly, interest in developing the substantial oil and gas reserves found on some reservations can be dampened if companies can’t get clear rights to those minerals because they are shared by multiple owners.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who attended the Billings consultation, said the fractionated land program could help clear away those hurdles to development so tribes can make better use of their land base. Yet with so much money involved, Tester added, the program “has the potential to succeed in a big way, and it also has the potential to fail in a very big way.”

Another issue highlighted by tribal leaders Friday was the high rate of land ownership among non-Native Americans on some reservations. Roxanne Smith, vice chairman of the Fort Peck Tribes of northeast Montana, said in many cases that land was sold by impoverished Native Americans with no other choice.

“They wanted to feed their children, so they sold their land to non-Native Americans. I would like to see us be able to purchase that land back,” Smith said.

Salazar said the fractionated land program was limited under the terms of the settlement to Native trust land administered by the government.

The secretary added that for every land sale, some money will be set aside for a $60 million Native American scholarship fund.