Fond du Lac Band gears up for land buybackThe Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is gearing up to take part in a huge government program to buy back parcels of former tribal land that were given to tribe members long ago and now are shared by hundreds or even thousands of heirs.
By: Rob Hotakainen, Pine Journal
The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is gearing up to take part in a huge government program to buy back parcels of former tribal land that were given to tribe members long ago and now are shared by hundreds or even thousands of heirs.
After bungling the management of those lands for generations, the Bureau of Indian Affairs wants to make amends by spending nearly $2 billion to buy 10 million acres of land for 150 tribes across the nation. That’s roughly twice the size of Massachusetts and would mark the largest expansion of the U.S. government’s land trust for tribes, which now covers 46 million acres.
To make the plan work, the government wants to find willing sellers to buy back reservation land it first gave to individual tribal members in 1887, often in tracts of 80 to 160 acres.
“We can improve Indian Country if people will go along with this program and sell their interests back to their tribes,” Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said in an interview.
It won’t be easy. With the land changing hands over the decades, many parcels now have hundreds or thousands of owners.
“It’s complicated,” said Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band. “We’ve actually been doing a lot of research and trying to find out who are the heirs.”
Diver said the band hopes to start contacting those heirs by the end of the year so they can move quickly once the BIA is ready to go.
Congress signed off on the land buy in 2010 to settle a lawsuit. The government had pledged to keep track of all royalties generated from the land for such things as grazing or logging, but that money never went back to benefit tribal members as promised.
Now, with so many owners involved, tribes complain that it’s nearly impossible to get the permission needed to develop or lease the land.
On the Fond du Lac Reservation a big issue is forest management. Diver said if the band wants to harvest an “overripe” parcel of timber that’s owned by hundreds of people, it has to track down and get permission from 51 percent of them before it can do the work. Then it has to remit the proceeds to the BIA, which shares it back out to the owners.
“The problem is there are multiple, multiple tracts in the Fond du Lac Reservation that need to be cared for,” Diver said. “We can’t implement a forest plan when we can’t care for it.”
Tribes with land rich in oil and mineral resources are especially eager to clean up the ownership issue.
“We are in an oil boom. … This is definitely slowing down progress for us,” said Stoney Anketell, a councilman with the Fort Peck Tribes in Montana. He said that if tribes can make more revenue off their land, they’ll need less federal assistance. “That’s the hope,” he said.
Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in Washington state, called the buyback program “a great opportunity,” both for individuals who want to sell their land and for tribes that will be allowed to acquire more property.
“It is a real win-win opportunity,” he said.
The plan calls for the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to buy back more than 92,000 parcels from private landowners. Most of the $1.9 billion will buy land in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions. The biggest expenditure is expected on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where the government estimates it will cost $126 million to buy back nearly 1.2 million acres.
Many property owners, with close ties to the land, are expected to be reluctant sellers.
“This is a modern day retaking of the land and, given the historical implications of that, they don’t want to relive it,” Les Riding-In, assistant dean and director of graduate studies at the University of Texas-Arlington and a member of the Comanche Tribe, said in an interview. “It’s reminiscent of how the government took the land back when colonization was happening.”
Riding-In said his family has decided not to sell its land in Oklahoma because the property represents a link to the past and “something that’s of value to us as an identity issue.”
The program will be entirely voluntary, said the BIA’s Washburn, President Obama’s point man on selling the plan.
“If we don’t have a willing seller,” he said, “we can’t purchase the property.”
But critics are skeptical, saying that federal law will allow tribes to ultimately force unwilling minority landowners to sell once they’ve acquired 51 percent ownership of any individual parcel.
All of this will complicate the job.
“This program will be successful on the ground only to the extent that tribal leaders themselves get behind it and evangelize for it,” said Washburn, a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. “There’s always a trust issue, and the track record hasn’t been very good.”