PABLO – Sally Jewell’s visit to the Flathead Indian Reservation last week marked an historic occasion for two reasons.
In addition to announcing the first offers by the federal government to consolidate tracts of land on the reservation under the watershed, $3.4 billion Cobell settlement agreement, Jewell, the 51st Secretary of the Interior, was blazing trail on terra incognita simply by paying the state’s westernmost reservation a visit – inexplicably, she was the first Interior secretary ever to do so.
“I’m amazed that I am the first Secretary of the Interior to visit here. It must be because they don’t know Montana, they don’t know Flathead Lake and they don’t know what a special place they are missing. So I certainly won’t be the last,” she said.
It might have had something to do with the company she was keeping on her July 20 visit to tribal headquarters.
Jewell appeared flanked by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee, who has been an advocate of expediting payments to tribal members under the landmark Cobell settlement agreement four years ago, a land consolidation effort that has been beset with challenges despite the Flathead Indian Reservation’s leadership playing a proactive role in the process.
Calling the slow progress unacceptable, Tester has been critical of the rollout of the program, but acknowledged that, after only 20 months, it was still in its infancy.
“We all know there is more to be done. Checks need to be issued more quickly and I will continue to hold the Garden City Group (the claims administrator) accountable for that,” he said, calling the distribution of money a “lengthy and difficult process” but noting the importance of the program. “Consolidating lands creates new economic opportunities, creates jobs, and is a step long overdue. It will fix a wrong in Indian country.
Tester said he is working on proposals to reform the land buy-back program and “will work with the tribes and all parties to make this process more efficient.”
CSKT Chairman Ron Trahan introduced Jewell on her visit to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal headquarters, and said the agreement’s buy-back program, which aims to consolidate fractionated lands in order to promote economic development, will keep the tribes viable into the future.
In May, the Department of the Interior named the Flathead Indian Reservation as one of four in Montana and 21 nationwide that would be part of the program’s next phase.
Calling the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes a model tribal government, Jewell praised the tribal leadership for being proactive in the early years of the self-determination programs.
“This tribe has been one of the models in this country of strong tribal government, strong tribal leadership and really being a pioneer in many ways,” Jewell said.
The Flathead Indian Reservation is one of 150 unique reservations with fractional interests, a result of tribal members passing on without wills and diluting the land’s interests until it is no longer workable.
The Interior Department holds more than 56 million acres of land in trust for tribes and individual American Indians. More than 10 million of those acres are owned in a fractionated state, where the federal government holds the land in trust for multiple owners.
“The land gets divided among their heirs, and the same thing happens with their heirs,” Jewell said. “You end up with a situation with what was actually a pretty workable piece of land divided into hundreds of pieces that nobody can do anything with. That’s the problem we’re solving so we don’t continue this cycle.”
The tribes have identified roughly 3,000 tribal members sharing 700 unique tracts on the reservation. That means nearly 2,000 of those interests amount to less than a 5 percent interest in a tract, highlighting how small some individual interests in a 40- or 80-acre tract of land might be.
Those receiving offers will be notified by postcard in advance, according to John McClanahan, program manager for the buy-back program. Once they receive the offer they’ll have 45 days to accept.
Under the Cobell settlement agreement, CSKT was allocated roughly $7.4 million to purchase an estimated 38,400 acres.
Last month, Carole Lankford, vice chair of the CSKT, also expressed concerns over the implementation of the program.
“Given the hoops we had to jump through and the dozens of rewrites we had to negotiate, combined with what we are hearing from other tribes, we are concerned that the implementation of this important program will not achieve the intended result, which is to reduce the number of fractionated interests.”
Acknowledging the shortcomings, Jewell promised her commitment to swifter action, and said the efforts by the CSKT would help ease the transition for other tribes.
“There are growing pains but it will make it smoother in the future, thanks due in part to tribes like this paving the way,” Jewell said. “It’s important to come out and visit this tribe because they are pioneers.”
Expressing his appreciation for Jewell’s visit, Chairman Trahan said he was confident that the Tribes’ proactive role in the program would pay off.
“You always hear that the check is in the mail,” Trahan said. “Well, it soon will be.”
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