Stephanie Henning
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The United States government has a long, nasty history when it comes to Native Americans’ land rights. From reservations to the Dawes Act to eminent domain, the Federal government has employed Mary Poppins’s Carpetbag-of-Tricks to successfully deprive Indians of access to or legal control over their homelands and natural resources. However, there is new hope for redemption in the Department of the Interior’s Tribal Land Buy-Back Program—a $1.9 billion fund to consolidate fractionated ownership of tribal lands back under the control of tribal councils.

In operation since 2012, the voluntary program has already paid out over $225 million to individual Indians. The Department of the Interior has made offers in 21 of the 150 eligible communities and will be extending the program to another 21 reservations by 2017. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Conner confirmed there are “approximately 245,000 owners, we’ve got 3 million fractional interests [on] 150 reservations, 40 of which comprise about 90 percent of the fractional interest.”

One of the leading points in favor of the Buy-Back Program is consolidating reservation land back under tribal ownership. Following the Dawes Act in 1887, communally-owned tribal lands were divided into individually-owned tracts for each male member of the tribe. Originally intended as a temporary solution, when the owner of an allotment died, his land was not split among his heirs. Rather, they each gained fractional ownership, i.e., a partial interest in the land. In 1887, a head of household was entitled to 160 acres. When he died, his ownership was divided among his heirs like stock in a company so that rather than owning one-third of the original acres, you and your two siblings collectively own the whole thing, but each has a 33 percent share. If you each have three children, and they have three children, and so on, by the sixth generation each individual owns 1/243th of the tract. In order to build a house, start a farm, or otherwise develop the land, an individual needs support from 51 percent of the owners. In this example, that’s 122 people! And some of these tracts now have thousands of owners.

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As a result, much of the land in tribal hands remains undeveloped and Indian Reservations continue to be some of the poorest communities in the country.  President Obama termed the situation a “moral call to action” stating “Native Americans face poverty rates far higher than the national average – nearly 60 percent in some places.” By consolidating ownership, the Buy-Back Program gives tribes back control of their lands, and helps promote economic development by making it easier to manage allotments.

The benefits of this program extend beyond economic development: for every successful purchase of a fractionated ownership, the Tribal Land Buy-Back Program contributes additional funds to a scholarship program. To date, $4.5 million of a possible $60 million has already been allocated to the scholarship fund. If fully funded, it would be the largest scholarship for Indians and Native Alaskans.

Another benefit is the reduced financial burden on the government. A 1992 survey of 12 reservations showed the government maintained 1.1 million records on 83,000 tribal tracts, of which 20 percent were fractionated and generated 60 percent of the records. Land administration for these 12 reservations cost between an estimated $40 and $50 million annually. By 2010, there were an estimated 1 million additional records, and administration costs had ballooned to $254 million. (For reference, President Obama’s budget ask for all of Indian Affairs in 2014 was only $2.6 billion). Reducing costs allows funds to be redistributed to education, health care, language revitalization, or just about anything else.

Not everyone is convinced, however. There are still considerable concerns when it comes to the ownership and management of tribal lands. Land purchased through the Buy-Back Program is automatically returned to tribal trusts, but corruption within tribal councils continues to be a major issue in some communities. There is an ongoing corruption case against the Chippewa Cree tribal council in Montana, and the Pine Ridge Reservation is still feeling the effects of a four-month takeover of tribal headquarters in 2000. Neither can the historic mismanagement of tribal lands held in trust by the US government be ignored. Just this year the Navajo Nation was awarded a historic $554 million settlement for mismanaged trust assets. The program also does nothing to address the problem of checkerboarding, when land inside reservation boundaries is owned by non-Natives.

Consolidating tribal lands to make them more productive is an important step, and a symbolic one in the history of US-Indian relations. But what happens next is just as important. The Department of the Interior needs to start thinking about how these lands will be managed. I like the Tribal Land Buy Back Program, but when it comes to managing those lands, maybe it’s time to try, try again.

Stephanie is first year MPA-PNP student. She brought her linguistic passion to Wagner to work on language policy and indigenous rights. Tweet her at @wingedrecliner. She probably won’t tweet back.