Just as payments to Native Americans from the landmark Cobell settlement are being mailed out, another part of that landmark settlement could pump more than $430 million into the hands of thousands of South Dakota tribal landowners over the next few years and along the way improve the quality of life on reservations for generations to come.
In a unique government land buy-back program, about $1.9 billion in federal money is available for the government to buy up so-called "fractured ownership" tribal lands, which essentially are lands allocated to Native Americans by the 1887 Dawes Act but which have since had ownership split multiple times as succeeding generations inherited the property. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation southeast of Rapid City could receive $126 million, the largest share of the buy-back money of any reservation in the nation.
That splintered ownership has made it difficult for anything useful or revenue-generating to occur on those lands, such as granting leases to ranchers who use it for grazing. Under the Department of Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs program, the government would buy those lands at fair market value from the group of owners, then turn ownership of the land over to the tribes. That would then make it easier for the tribes or the BIA to approve leases on the land or develop it with housing or other infrastructure.
The move, tribal leaders say, will not only consolidate the fractured lands, but also enable them to in some cases double the annual revenues the tribes receive from leases. Also, the program contains a provision to create a $60 million educational trust fund for American Indians and Alaska Natives as trust lands are consolidated.
The buy-back is needed because some of those inherited interests have become so small that it is impractical for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which manages the trust land, to lease the property. Some trust land has so many owners that shares can be as small as .00001 percent.
Consolidating the ownership of the land and transferring trust ownership to tribal nations will be economically beneficial to the tribes, according to Brian Brewer, chairman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Brewer spoke with federal officials this week about the buy-back program. With almost 1.2 million acres of trust land allotments that have multiple owners, the Pine Ridge reservation has more fractured trust land than any other reservation. Almost 6,000 tracts of land have 194,401 ownership interests. An estimated $126 million will be available to buy individual interests in those tracts, according to Brewer.
“We’re going to try to get this thing going right away,” Brewer said Wednesday. “We need to start buying this land back.”
Brewer says transferring trust ownership from individuals to the tribe could double his tribe’s income from trust payments. Instead of the $5 million it receives now, OST could eventually receive up to $10 million as the consolidated land becomes available for economic development or conservation.
That’s money that can be used for housing, social programming and economic development, he said.
Under the provisions of the buy-back plan, willing sellers will be offered fair-market value for their trust interests. Tribes are being encouraged assist with the program, Brewer said. “The tribe will start immediately to get the word out to the people,” he said.
Brewer said meetings will be held with the BIA to come up with a strategic plan to determine how the buy-back will be handled. The Department of the Interior has 10 years to complete the buy-back, but has set a goal of completing the program before the end of President Barack Obama’s second term in 2016.
Scattered across the nation are 150 reservations with an estimated 10.6 million acres with more than 2.9 million ownership interests. The Department of the Interior has identified 40 reservations as a priority for the consolidation of trust ownership. An estimated $1.391 billion is available to buy diluted property interests in that trust land.
Eight of South Dakota’s nine reservations are included in the top 40, and Pine Ridge will receive the largest share of any tribe in the country.
The Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which spans North and South Dakota, has 6,210 tracts of land with two or more unique owners, more than any other land area in the Bureau of Indian Affairs system, tribal attorney Christopher Lindblad told the Rapid City Journal Wednesday.
“The Standing Rock Indian Reservation is dealing with one of the nation’s largest land fractionation problems,” Lindblad said.
Standing Rock officials are still waiting to hear from Washington, D.C., Lindblad said. The tribe has participated in discussions and comment periods about land consolidation, he said.
“The Standing Rock Indian Reservation also has more tracts with 20 or more unique owners (2,530) and more tracts with 11-19 unique owners (1,234) than any other land area,” Lindblad explained. “Only the Pine Ridge and Picyune land area have more tracts with 2-10 owners.”
Federal officials will meet with tribal representatives in Rapid City on Feb. 6 to discuss the implementation plan.
“Given the Department of Interior’s goal to 'reduce land fractionation in highly-fractionated areas,' I would certainly expect the Department to make reducing the land fractionation problem on the Standing Rock reservation one of its main priorities,” Lindblad said.
Meanwhile, many South Dakota tribal members are celebrating the receipt of the initial Cobell settlement checks, which ranged from $800 to $1,000 and began arriving in the mail last week.
“There are lots of happy people,” Brewer said.
The Pine Ridge Post Office was busy sorting checks on Wednesday, he said. People are anxiously awaiting the arrival of their checks.
“A number of people are praying that theirs comes in today,” Brewer said Wednesday.