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House Subcommittee on Indian and Insular Affairs: Examining the Opportunities and Challenges of Land Consolidation in Indian Country
Land consolidation back on the agenda for Indian Country
Thursday, January 25, 2024

After 10 years and more than $1.6 billion put in the hands of Indian Country, a successful program that was designed to address a harmful era in federal policy has finally come to a close.

On the eve of the White House Tribal Nations Summit last month, the Department of the Interior announced the conclusion of the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations. A final report hailed the “unprecedented scale” of an initiative that returned nearly 3 million acres of land in 15 states to tribal ownership.

“Assimilation policies not only attempted to break apart Indigenous families, devastate ecosystems and eliminate Native languages, they also worked to weaken land claims and tribal land ownership,” Secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Native person to lead the federal agency with the most trust and treaty responsibilities in Indian Country, said in a December 4 news release. “The checkerboard system of land ownership on many reservations historically left communities and landowners unable to make basic decisions about their homelands.”

“The Land Buy-Back Program’s progress puts the power back in the hands of tribal communities to determine how their lands are used — from conservation to economic development projects,” said Halaand, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna.

Elouise Cobell and Barack Obama
The late Elouise Cobell meets President Barack Obama at the White House on December 8, 2010. Cobell, a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation, was the lead plaintiff in the landmark Indian trust fund lawsuit, which led to a $3.8 billion settlement with the federal government. Her efforts to improve financial services in her community led to the establishment of the Native American Bank. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

The effort got its start thanks to the late Elouise Cobell, who was a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation. As part of a historic settlement with the federal government over the mismanagement of Indian trust funds, she secured $1.9 billion for a 10-year program in which individual Indians would be paid for their land interests, which would then be restored to tribal governments.

“I’m very proud of the department’s work to implement this program and realize Elouise Cobell’s vision to restore tribal homelands,” Haaland said at the opening of the White House Tribal Nations Summit on December 5.

Tribes are the original owners of lands that were broken up by the federal government through a process known as allotment. Between 1887 and 1934, when the negative policy was repudiated by Congress, more than 90 million acres fell out of Indian hands, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

The allotment era not only resulted in the loss of Indian lands, it made the management of the remaining lands more difficult, as Cobell’s lawsuit repeatedly showed in federal court. As individual Indians passed on, their allotments were divided into smaller and smaller interests for their heirs, creating yet another problem known as fractionation.

According to Interior, the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations has helped address fractionation by acquiring nearly 1.1 million in fractional interests from individual Indians. These owners were paid $1.69 billion for their lands, the department’s final report stated.

Tribes also have benefited, the department said. The restoration of 2.97 million acres to tribal ownership has resulted in more funds flowing into tribal trust accounts and the creation of more than 20,000 jobs in Indian Country, according to the report.

“Reducing fractionation and achieving tribal majority ownership provides for more efficient trust management through simplified leasing processes that uphold tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and the government-to-government relationship,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a political appointee who oversees the BIA.

“Land consolidation partnerships with tribal nations benefit both landowners and tribes, including opportunities for increased agricultural operations, economic development, conservation, and cultural stewardship,” said Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community. “The lessons learned from the Buy-Back Program will help inform our ongoing efforts to reduce fractionation.”

Budget Justification: Indian Land Consolidation – PDF

The Biden administration is hoping to continue the lessons learned since 2012, when the Cobell program began. The BIA’s fiscal year 2024 budget, which has not formally been approved by the U.S. Congress due to ongoing disagreements among lawmakers, calls for $30.5 million to re-establish land consolidation in Indian Country.

“This program is especially important since the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations (LBBP), established as part of the Cobell Settlement, ended in November 2022,” the BIA’s budget justification reads.

But not all lawmakers are on board. Rep. Harriet Hageman (R-Wyoming), a key Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Indian and Insular Affairs, questioned the request for new funds at one of her first hearings as a new member of Congress.

“Throwing more money at the complicated issue of land fractionation will not get us anywhere without reconsidering how to deal with the issue of probate and focusing resources on how to pursue outcomes on this issue that are the very best for our tribes,” Hageman said at a subcommittee hearing on May 25, 2023.

In contrast, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-New Mexico), who chaired the predecessor subcommittee when Democrats controlled the U.S. House of Representatives, spoke in support of the budget request.

“That is what we need to have happen, because what we have presented here are key increases for initiatives,” Leger Fernandez said of several programs at the BIA, including land consolidation.

Hageman and Leger Fernandez will get another chance to examine the issue next week. The subcommittee has scheduled a January 30 hearing to address the “opportunities and challenges” of land consolidation. A witness list has not yet been made public.

But the BIA already acknowledges that the successes of the Cobell program will be undermined without additional funds. At the hearing last year, Assistant Secretary Newland warned that land will continue to fall out of Indian hands unless the federal government takes action.

“If we don’t continue these investments, land will go out of trust through the fractionation process, and by 2038 more land will be fractionated in Indian Country than when we started the Cobell settlement,” Newland said after Hageman asked about the $30.5 million request in the BIA’s budget.

According to Interior’s final report, 53 tribes participated in the Land Buy-Back Program. Almost all of them entered into cooperative agreements with the federal government, helping to facilitate land acquisitions and encourage participation among individual Indians.

The Cobell settlement allowed the BIA to use up to 15 percent of the $1.9 billion in land consolidation funds for administrative purposes, such as developing agreements with tribes, engaging in outreach and conducting evaluations of fractional interests. But the agency only used $149.8 million, resulting in more money being put into land sales, the report stated.

Deb Haaland
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland addresses the White House Tribal Nations Summit virtually on December 6, 2023, following her positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

Sales data for the program runs through November 25, 2022, when the program officially ended as required by the settlement. The data shows how many landowners participated, how much they were paid for their fractional interests and how many equivalent acres were restored to tribal ownership.

Some tribes participated in multiple rounds of buy-back offers due to high levels of fractionation on their reservations. The problem is particularly notable in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions of Indian Country.

Data is not shown for a small number of tribes because only “a few individual landowners” participated, according to the sales data. Data is not complete in the 2022 document for the final rounds of implementation on three reservations because efforts were still ongoing. The 2023 report shows the completion of buy-back offers at all locations.

Sales Data: Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations – PDF

House Subcommittee on Indian and Insular Affairs Notice
Examining the Opportunities and Challenges of Land Consolidation in Indian Country (January 30, 2024)