HELENA, Mont. — Tribal leaders from Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington state told a congressional panel Thursday that they feel shut out of decisions being made in a $1.9 billion land-buyback program managed by the U.S. Department of Interior.
The buyback program is the largest part of the $3.4 billion settlement in 2010 of a class-action lawsuit filed by Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mt., over mismanaged trust money held by the government for individual Indian landowners.
The buyback program aims to turn over to tribes fractionated land parcels across the nation that amassed multiple Indian owners over more than a century.
But the program, which must be completed in 10 years from the settlement, is progressing slowly despite tribal leaders eager to get started, five tribal leaders told a U.S. House panel.
The Interior Department is identifying parcels, entering into cooperative agreements to purchase the land and turning the parcels over to the tribes. The tribal leaders said they know the land and their people, so they want to be more involved in identifying parcels, approaching landowners and shaping cooperative agreements.
But government officials have been unresponsive, said Mark Azure, president of central Montana’s Fort Belknap reservation.
“You pick up the phone, and it’s a dead dial tone there,” Azure said.
John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw tribe in Oklahoma, said his tribe already has done all the preparatory work, identified willing sellers and submitted a proposed cooperative agreement, but the Quapaw has not yet been brought into the program.
“We think we can help the department with success if they would just come to the table and meet with me,” he said.
Lawrence Roberts, the deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the Interior Department, said the agency is looking to streamline the process after hearing complaints of it being burdensome and complex.
The buyback program so far has sent purchase offers to about 18,000 Indian landowners on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Roberts said. The equivalent of about 40,000 acres has been returned to tribes in the past four months, he said.
Land fractionation was caused by the 1887 Dawes Act, which split tribal lands into individual allotments of 80- to 160-acre parcels, in most cases. Those allotments were inherited by multiple heirs with each passing generation, leaving tens of thousands of parcels with hundreds or even thousands of owners.
Using or leasing those tracts requires approval of all the owners, so often they sit without being developed.
Also testifying before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs were Michael Finley of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Gary Burke of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Grant Stafne of the Fort Peck Reservation.