Feds: 500,000 Acres of Land Returned to Tribes under Obama

Restoring tribal homelands has been a key part of the Obama administration's Indian Country policy

By MARY HUDETZ, Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Obama administration has met its goal of transferring 500,000 acres of land to the control of U.S. tribes under a push by the Interior Department to restore more historic tribal homelands, federal officials said.

A bill signed last week to transfer a 71,000-acre swath of federal public land in Nevada to six tribes in the state helped the administration surpass the mark it set years ago for placing land into trust for tribes.

The strategy ensures the tracts can’t be taken from tribes or sold because only a congressional vote can remove the land from tribal ownership or jurisdiction.

Restoring tribal homelands has been a key part of the Obama administration’s Indian Country policy. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Larry Roberts, who oversees the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the policy represents a shift from historic federal efforts that resulted in tribes losing millions of acres of land across the U.S. over several hundred years.

“We view this as a meaningful start to correcting the enormous loss of tribal homelands Indian Country has endured,” Roberts said.

Under the initiative, tribes in dozens of states — from Arizona to Massachusetts — have had land placed into trust by the government to expand their reservations.

For tribes, placing land into trust generally requires them to purchase it before petitioning the federal government for the special status and proving they have a significant historical or cultural tie to the land. When placed into trust, tracts become tax-exempt and the tribe can gain governmental oversight over the land.

In New Mexico, the Pueblo of Isleta added a 91,000-acre ranch it purchased more than a decade ago for $7.3 million to its jurisdiction south of Albuquerque — marking the single largest transfer of land back to a tribe’s control under Obama.

Federal analysis shows the vast majority of about 325,000 acres of the new trust land has been used by tribes for agriculture. Other uses involve housing, natural preservation, health care services and gambling ventures.

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