American Bar Association considers land buyback program

Earlier this month, the American Bar Association hosted a conference highlighting different tribal, federal, and private agencies working to restore tribal nations’ ancestral native lands.

Speakers for the hour-long session included: Carolyn Drouin, Tribal Relations Advisor with the US Department of the Interior’s Land Buyback Program for Tribal Nations; Chris Stainbrook (Oglala Lakota), president of the grassroots organization working to help reclaim and manage reservation land, the Indian Land Tenure Foundation; and Koko Hufford, land project manager and enrolled tribal member at the Confederate Tribe of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The panel was moderated by attorney Kathy Kinsman, whose legal experience includes Indian law. Kinsman also co-chairs the American Bar Association’s Native American Law Committee.

Initially, most tribal nations ceded large swaths of their land under binding treaties with the US government, in exchange for certain protections and sovereignty. The government ignored or reneged on most of these early agreements and divided the reserve lands in the General Allotment Act of 1887. The Allotment Act, passed by Congress exactly 135 years ago this month, divided reservation land into individually owned parcels and forcibly sold the remaining ‘surplus’ land to non-Indigenous farmers . Due to the allotment policy, more than half of Native American reservation land in the United States is owned and controlled by non-Natives. The land lost is equivalent to 90 million acres.

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Several Indigenous nations, in partnership with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, have been working to return ancestral lands to tribal hands for more than two decades. The redemption of Indian lands is complex and involves the Department of the Interior, Indian Affairs, tribes and sometimes tribal citizens.

The Indian Land Tenure Foundation, led by Stainbrook, began its work in 2003 helping tribal members write wills and arrange estates to ensure that indigenous land remains in their hands.

“Ultimately, the goal is to reclaim these 90 million acres into Indian ownership, management (and) control, as well as sites outside the reservation that are culturally significant to the tribes. “Stainbrook said Thursday. “Over the years we have reclaimed approximately 100,000 acres…and by the end of March we should have reclaimed another 50,000 acres.”

For the federal government’s part, the Department of the Interior in 2013 launched the buyback program, aimed at consolidating the indigenous lands of the “fractionation” over a period of ten years with almost 2 billion dollars. This period ends in November. The buyout program was created to implement the land consolidation component of the Cobell settlement, which provided $1.9 billion to purchase fractional interests in trust or restricted land from willing landowners. Consolidated interests are transferred to tribal government ownership for uses benefiting the reservation community and tribal members.

Fractionation, Drouin explained, is the result of the policy of dividing tribal homelands into individual allotments or parcels and then dividing one’s ownership among more and more owners after the original owner dies.

“On average, each plot has 25 owners,” Drouin said. “We’ve seen plots that have hundreds and even plots that have thousands of landowners.”

Native News Online founder Levi Rickert said that around 2013, the Home Office was receiving several family members who were claiming land stakes after their loved ones died.

Fractionation makes it harder for an individual or tribe to pursue economic development opportunities and infrastructure projects on land when hundreds of people must be involved in decision-making, she said.

So far, the buyout program has consolidated over one million fractional properties (not necessarily full acres), resulting in the transfer of 2.9 million equivalent acres to the tribes and trust, a said Drouin.

As a result, landowners and tribes have reported an improvement in their ability to repay debts and use the land for economic growth.

“The Oglala Sioux Tribe is working with the USDA to develop agricultural improvements, including creating more reliable sources for livestock,” Drouin said. She added that the Makah tribe used their consolidated land to build a recreation facility and cabins to generate additional income for the tribe.

Hufford, who works in his tribe’s land department in Oregon, said the Umatilla Indian Reservation used funds from his tribal farming business to buy back land lost during the allotment period.

“Now we own about 100,000 acres of our own property,” Hufford said. “One thing is that we couldn’t have done this without our partners. I could speak ill of the Home Office and the BIA, but they had to be our partners. We had to work with them to make that happen.

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About the Author

Jenna Kunze
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Personal editor

Jenna Kunze is a reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. His bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Smithsonian Magazine and Anchorage Daily News. In 2020, she was one of 16 American journalists selected by the Pulitzer Center to report on the effects of climate change in the Arctic region of Alaska. Previously, she was a senior reporter at the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska. Kunze is based in New York.


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