(CN) – A federal program has paid over $1 billion to buy fractional land interests on U.S. Indian reservations and turn them over to Native American tribes.
The money for the land purchases is from the settlement of the case Cobell v. Salazar, where Blackfeet Tribe member Elouise Cobell accused the federal government of mismanaging decades of royalties paid to Indians for resource extraction and other leases on Indian trust land.
Through Nov. 9, completed land purchases have totaled $1.258 billion, with 2.1 million acres going back to tribal nations through the Land Buy-Back Program. The program has consolidated 746,532 ownership interests, according to Michael Estes, a spokesman for the Department of the Interior.
The Cobell settlement included $1.9 billion for the federal government to purchase fractional interests held in trust or restricted land owned by Native Americans and turn it over to the tribes with jurisdiction. The settlement also created the Indian Education Scholarship Fund to help defray the cost of Native Americans to attend post-secondary vocational schools, colleges and universities.
Cobell, who died in 2011, had been a banker on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation when she discovered the discrepancies in Native Americans’ trust accounts over federal royalties from leases on their land. The Cobell v. Salazar Settlement Agreement provides a $1.9 billion Trust Land Consolidation Fund to be expended within a 10-year period ending in November 2022.
Congress approved the Cobell settlement on Nov. 30, 2010, and then-President Barack Obama signed the deal on Dec. 8, 2010. The settlement also included $1.5 billion in direct payments to any Native Americans who had an Individual Indian Money account from 1985 through Sept. 30, 2009, or who had an individual interest in land held in trust by the U.S. government. These people received one-time cash payments. The settlement also included a $100 million Trust Administration Adjustment Fund.
According to Estes, approximately 90 million acres of Indian trust land base were lost through 1934 due to federal policies that broke up tribal land bases into individual allotments. Fractionation prevents or impedes approximately 150 tribal nations from effectively protecting or developing tribal land, Estes said, and many fractionated tracts are under-utilized, unoccupied or unavailable for use. The land buyback program was meant to consolidate land that has been fractionated through many owners, such as through family descendants. The program identified about 243,000 owners of about 3 million land ownership interests across Indian reservations who were eligible to participate in the Program.
Cobell’s home reservation on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwest Montana received one of the highest amounts of funds through the land buyback program. The settlement has paid $156 million for lands on the Blackfeet Reservation.
Montana, with its seven Indian reservations, has seen the most money per state from the Buy-Back Program. About $130 million was spent for land purchases on the Crow Indian Reservation, $61 million on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, and $70 million on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
Land secured through the buyback program on the Crow Reservation of Montana will now be available for the tribe to develop a new community water plant on the reservation, according to Estes.
Land buyback money has made its way into local economies. According to Estes, Program payments through August 2017 contributed an estimated $1.3 billion to gross domestic product, $2.3 billion in output of goods and services, and supported approximately 15,000 jobs nationwide as a result of the influx of funds into specific areas and the associated spending.
For example, payments to Montana landowners contributed an estimated $181 million in value to the economy and $339 million in economic output, and supported approximately 3,000 jobs statewide, according to Estes. In South Dakota, payments made to individual landowners in South Dakota landowners for their property on tribal reservations contributed an estimated $116 million in value to the economy and $206 million in economic output, and supported approximately 1,700 jobs statewide, according to Estes.
Another aspect of the historic Cobell settlement was the establishment of a scholarship fund for Native Americans. So far roughly 1,600 Native Americans have received 3,000 scholarship distributions, according to Melvin Monette, executive director of Indigenous Education, which oversees management of the Cobell scholarship.
Through the scholarship program, Native Americans are eligible for up to $5,000 a year for vocational and undergraduate study, and up to $10,000 a year for graduate students. The average undergraduate scholarship award is $4,287, and the average graduate award is $7,182, according to Monette.
In April 2017, the Department of Interior announced that it made its final transfer to the Cobell Education Scholarship Fund, bringing the total amount to $60 million to be made available for technical training and higher education for Native youth.
Alex Pearl, chairman of the Cobell Board of Trustees, said the scholarship program will continue the legacy of Cobell, who fought for Indians’ rights from a tiny town on a windswept prairie of Montana near the foothills of Glacier National Park.
“The latest distribution helps our mission of carrying out the vision of Elouise Cobell to enhance educational opportunities for American Indians and Alaskan Native students,” Pearl said. “We remain committed to creating a uniquely tuned and perpetual scholarship program designed to respond to the needs and issues of Native students.”
TOP RESERVATIONS IN LAND PURCHASES
Pine Ridge Reservation (South Dakota): 292,743 equivalent acres, $110,395,928
Crow Reservation (Montana): 244,278 equivalent acres, $130,477,269
Fort Belknap Reservation (Montana): 200,652 equivalent acres, $60,707,370
Cheyenne River Reservation (South Dakota): 247,010 equivalent acres, $78,235,791
Fort Peck Reservation (Montana): 218,341 equivalent acres, $70,148,215
Blackfeet Reservation (Montana): 323,513 equivalent acres, $156,154,358