The Pala Reservation in California. Photo: Pala Band of Mission Indians

Cobell buy-back program keeps on rolling toward eventual end

The Trump administration has put Indian Country on notice of the eventual end of the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations.

But until the $1.9 billion fund runs out -- and it's slowly but surely getting there -- the program keeps rolling on. And despite comments by a top official at the Department of the Interior regarding high-value allotments, some Indian landowners might be seeing a nice payday if they accept the latest offers.

According to the department, more than $3.8 million in offers just went out to 611 landowners on the Pala Reservation in southern California. If all accepted -- which is highly unlikely, given past participation rates in the program -- each would see an average of payment of about $6,300.

But it's the nearby Sycuan Reservation where payouts stand to be a lot higher. The department sent out $171,860 in offers to a mere 7 landowners, representing an average payout of about $24,500.

It's those kind of higher-value offers that have bothered Jim Cason, a non-Indian whose official title at Interior is Associate Deputy Secretary. Since the start of the Trump era in January, he's been serving as "acting" deputy secretary at the department and he hasn't been happy with what he's learned about the Buy-Back.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs May 23, 2017

In testimony to the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs two weeks ago, he said tribal leaders and individual Indians aren't motivated by reducing fractionation, which the program was designed to address. Instead, he characterized them as greedy.

"I don't think there's any tribal leader that would say, 'Gee -- I don't want free money,'" Cason said on May 23.

And had he been in charge of the program when it started during the Obama administration, he said he "never" would have allowed offers to go out in places like southern California, where real estate can be very valuable.

"So I would redirect our staff to buy interests in a much narrower arena where we get lots of interests for a little bit of money, as opposed to spending a lot of money for relatively few interests," he said.

Cason also didn't want to admit that restoring fractional interests to tribes -- who were the original owners of the land before Congress imposed allotment on them -- helps tribal sovereignty. But the announcement about the latest offers stated otherwise.

"Tribal ownership now exceeds 50 percent in more than 13,600 tracts of land, strengthening tribal sovereignty and self-determination," the press release stated.

Sycuan Tribe on YouTube: Our People. Our Culture. Our History.

As of June 2, the Buy-Back has spent $1.192 billion in Indian Country. That money went into the pockets of more than 135,800 individual owners. The equivalent of over 2.1 million acres has been returned to tribes.

The success of the program means only about $600 million remains. Once it's gone, Cason said the Trump administration won't be requesting any more funds for land consolidation. Democrats think that's a bad approach.

"The idea behind the Cobell settlement was to make tribes whole, not write a few checks and call it a day," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources "We can’t just stop meeting our responsibilities because the initial agreement didn’t go far enough."

"We need to continue and expand the Buy-Back Program, fully fund it and continue working on long-term solutions to the fractionation issue," Grijalva added.

Fractionation occurs as an Indian allotment becomes divided among multiple generations of owners. On some reservations, thousands of people own the same parcel, making it difficult for them to reach consensus on development activities. And even when development occurs, the revenues must be shared among all of the owners.

The Buy-Back component of the $3.4 billion settlement to the Cobell trust fund lawsuit was designed to start addressing the issue on a more serious basis. Prior to the agreement, which was reached by the Obama administration in 2009, Congress had only put about $21 million a year into land consolidation, an amount that was never enough.

In contrast, even Cason was forced to admit during the hearing last month that the Cobell program has slowed the rate of newly fractionated allotments.

During the Obama years, Buy-Back staff identified 105 reservations where fractionation was a big problem. As of this month, only about 40 of those reservations have been reached.

"Join us in strengthening tribal sovereignty and consolidating fractionated lands," an announcement from the Pala Band of Mission Indians reads. The tribe is encouraging those who received offers to sign them at events this week and next week.

House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing on the Status and Future of the Cobell Land Consolidation Program (May 23, 2017)

Department of the Interior Report:
2016 Status Report: Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations (November 2016)

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