Making Strides to Restore Native American Homelands

Michael Connor, Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior

As President Obama hosted the 6th Annual Tribal Nations Conference this week, the Administration capped a year of continued progress in strengthening the government-to-government relationship with Indian Country and working with tribal leaders to build stronger, more resilient communities.

2014 has seen the beginnings of a transformation on Indian education reform, progress on energy and economic development and addressing climate change impacts on tribal nations. As part of these efforts, we have made major strides in restoring American Indian homelands through the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations, an initiative that addresses a major obstacle to tribal social and economic development -- land ownership fractionation.

There are about 245,000 owners of nearly three million fractional interests in Indian Country, spanning 150 Indian reservations, who are eligible for the Program. Many see little or no economic benefit from what are often very small undivided interests in lands that cannot be utilized due to their highly fractionated state.

The Program has paid more than $288 million to landowners and restored the equivalent of more than 475,000 acres of land to tribal governments during its first year of sending offers. Currently, buy-back activities are scheduled to be implemented in 42 tribal communities -- locations that represent 83 percent of all outstanding fractional interests - through the middle of 2017. And the number of locations will increase in the years ahead.

Program sales are already making a significant difference for individuals, families and their communities. For example, the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation recently announced that the tribe is embarking on a $9 million housing program, aided by recent acquisition of land through the Buy-Back Program.

The Program is part of the historic Cobell Settlement, which provided $1.9 billion to purchase fractional interests in trust or restricted land from willing sellers at fair market value within a 10-year period. Individuals who choose to sell their fractionated interests receive payments directly in their Individual Indian Money accounts. Consolidated interests are immediately restored to tribal trust ownership for uses benefiting the reservation community and tribal members.

The Cobell Settlement also authorized an Education Scholarship Fund, funded by the Buy-Back Program, to provide financial assistance to American Indian and Alaska Native students wishing to pursue post-secondary education and training. Based on Program sales thus far, Interior has transferred more than $4.5 million to the Fund, which is managed by the American Indian College Fund. Initial scholarships are expected to be awarded in 2015.

We continue to identify opportunities for Program improvements. I was encouraged by the feedback from tribes and individual landowners at the Program's Listening Session in Portland earlier this year, and we have announced another Listening Session next March in Arizona. Our recently released Status Report identifies lessons learned thus far in the areas of outreach, land research, valuation and acquisition. Equally as important, it charts a path forward for the next several years.

This initiative embodies the President's goals of building effective partnerships with American Indian communities, promoting sustainable economic development and tribal culture and protecting tribal lands. We are moving as swiftly as possible to ensure the widest possible impact across Indian Country over the life of the program. We must do all we can to give landowners a meaningful chance to participate, receive compensation for their interests and allow land consolidation to strengthen tribal communities and advance tribal self-determination.

-Mike Connor, Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior; Land Buy-Back for Tribal Nations Program Oversight Board Chair