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The Department of the Interior has officially concluded the Land Buy-Back Program for tribal nations, marking the end of a decade-long initiative aimed at consolidating and restoring land to tribal ownership. Throughout the program's duration, nearly 3 million acres in 15 states were successfully consolidated and returned to tribal trust ownership. The initiative disbursed $1.69 billion to over 123,000 individuals with vested interests. The funding allocated for the Buy-Back Program ceased in November 2022, following the guidelines set forth in the Settlement and Claims Resolution Act of 2010.

To commemorate the conclusion of the program, the Department has released a comprehensive report outlining the historical context, best practices, and lessons learned during its implementation. The report underscores the importance of continuing land consolidation efforts and highlights policies and opportunities that could complement future voluntary sales initiatives.

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“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. The checkboard system of land ownership on many reservations historically left communities and landowners unable to make basic decisions about their homelands,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) said. “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.”  

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community) noted that reducing fractionation and achieving tribal majority ownership leads to more efficient trust management, upholding tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and the government-to-government relationship. Land consolidation partnerships with Tribal Nations offer benefits such as streamlined leasing processes, increased opportunities for agricultural operations, economic development, conservation, and cultural stewardship.

The General Allotment Act of 1887 initially divided tribal reservation land among individual tribal citizens, leading to fractionated ownership as the land passed through generations. The Land Buy-Back Program, established in 2012 to execute the land consolidation aspects of the Cobell v. Salazar Settlement Agreement, aimed to consolidate fractional trust or restricted land interests through voluntary sales with individual landowners, placing purchased interests into trust for tribes.

The program collaborated with more than 50 tribes in 15 states, achieving notable success in increasing tribal ownership in locations where offers were extended. The announcement revealed that some areas experienced over a 100 percent increase in fractionated tracts with 50 percent or greater tribal ownership, reaching up to an 1,800 percent increase in tribal majority ownership. The high acceptance rates at several locations underscored the effectiveness of a well-funded willing seller approach with tribal support and successful outreach.

The Buy-Back Program's efficient management and collaboration with federal government and tribal partners allowed $135.2 million of the original $285 million designated for program administration to be redirected to purchase an additional 100,000 fractional interests at 17 locations. Additionally, the program contributed $60 million to the Cobell Education Scholarship Fund, benefiting more than 12,000 scholarship recipients to date.

The announcement of the program's conclusion precedes the 2023 White House Tribal Nations Summit, providing an opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration and tribal leaders to discuss ways the federal government can invest in and strengthen nation-to-nation relationships and ensure enduring progress in Indian Countr

 

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