News & Features

Federal Buy-Back Program Puts 326,000 Acres Back in Blackfeet Hands

Interior Department announces “revised strategy” to reduce fractionated tribal land

A year after former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the Blackfeet Nation would receive $107 million to purchase fractionated land and “right past wrongs,” the federal government has purchased more than 326,000 acres of land to be held in trust for the tribe on the reservation.

The federal money was allocated to the Blackfeet as part of the $1.9 billion Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations that resulted from the Elouise Cobell’s historic lawsuit against the federal government over mismanaged land.

“This has been a very important program for us,” said Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes.

Much of the 326,000 acres acquired by the tribe and managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs is currently being leased for grazing and is generating $2.5 million in new revenue annually for the tribe. Barnes said the tribe is currently evaluating the best way to use the land in the future.

According to the Department of the Interior, there were more than 2.9 million fractional interests across Indian Country in 2012. Over the past century, land in Indian Country has become fractionated because the children of individual owners inherited undivided common ownership interests in the land. When those inheritors died, their children and family would inherit the land, and within a few generations dozens of people would own one piece of land. In one extreme instance, a single tract of land on South Dakota’s Crow Creek Reservation had more than 1,200 owners.

The division and sale of reservation land to individual tribal members was authorized under the Dawes Act of 1887.

“The Buy-Back Program allows interested individual owners to receive payments for voluntarily selling their land,” the Department of the Interior states. “All lands sold will immediately be held in trust for the tribe with jurisdiction. This effort will strengthen tribal sovereignty and put decision-making in the hands of the tribal government, freeing up resources that have been locked-up as land interests have fractionated over time.”

Mismanagement of land and trust funds was at the center of Cobell’s class-action lawsuit against the federal government, which was settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion. Plaintiffs received $1.4 billion; the rest was set aside to repurchase and de-fracture land.

According to the Interior Department, a year ago there were 6,747 fractionated tracts of land on the Blackfeet Reservation held by 8,164 people, totaling 812,094 acres, or about 60 percent of the reservation. Officials said the Blackfeet Reservation had the third-highest amount of fractured land in the United States.

Barnes said he would like to see the Buy-Back Program extended. He noted that the allocated $1.9 billion falls short of resolving the issue of fractionated lands nationally. An extension of the program would require an act of Congress.

On July 31, the Department of the Interior announced a “revised strategy” to spend the program’s final $540 million. The revision reduced the number of tribes that will get money to 20; the Blackfeet, Crow, Fort Belknap, Fort Peck and Northern Cheyenne reservations will all receive funds.

“The revised strategy announced today maximizes the remaining dollars left for the implementation of the Buy-Back Program and seeks to achieve the greatest reduction of fractional interests, the largest number possible of landowners able to participate, and the most effective use of the Department’s resources,” stated Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason in a press release.