Asst. Sec'y for Indian Affairs Explains Interior's Land Buy-Back Plan

Kevin K. Washburn

Late last year, the Department of the Interior was given the green light to work with Indian country to purchase fractionated trust lands or restricted interests from willing sellers at fair market value. Every acre purchased through this Land Buy-Back Program will be held in trust or restricted status for tribes. The success of this program is vitally important to the future of Indian country. I believe wholeheartedly that this work can and will succeed, but only with the collaborative involvement of tribal leaders and their communities.

Every year thousands of acres of land go out of trust simply because fractionated interests are passed on to non-Indian heirs. The Land Buy-Back Program will stop this loss of Indian lands by transferring those interests to the tribe—forever preventing further fractionation. Returning these lands to tribes through purchases from willing sellers has enormous potential to spur economic development and restore tribal homelands.

We have heard from Tribal leaders that we must implement the Buy-Back Program in a fair and equitable manner. Tribal leaders have stressed the urgency of moving quickly to ensure that we reach as much of Indian country as possible. We have heard the call to implement lessons learned as we move across Indian country. And we have heard loud and clear that we have a responsibility to minimize administrative costs so that the maximum amount of money is used to consolidate tribal lands through voluntary purchases from individual owners.

The task ahead is complex. Across Indian country, more than 150 unique reservations have fractionated lands and thousands of potentially interested landowners. Through government-to-government consultations and meetings with tribal communities, we have repeatedly heard that the needs and circumstances vary dramatically across Indian country.

Some tribes want to be among the first to receive purchase offers from the Buy-Back Program. While we cannot start everywhere at once, we are heartened by this interest in the Program and want to assure tribes that outreach will continue and additional locations will be added into the Program on a rolling basis as efforts continue. To ensure that the Buy-Back Program will reach as many locations as possible, flexible purchase ceilings have been set for land purchases on each reservation to ensure that the funds are not spent at only a handful of locations.

We have heard from some that tribes, not the Department, should implement the program. If you know me, you know that my guiding principle is that tribal governments do a better job of implementing federal programs through 638 contracts and self-governance compacts. The law, however, forbids us from using those mechanisms for this program. Given this legal reality, my goal is to stay true to my guiding principle and use cooperative agreements to maximize tribal participation for those parts of the program where it will be most cost effective to do so.

Maximizing tribal engagement and offering the greatest flexibility for each tribal nation to determine how to best implement the Program in its community are critical. We will do this through cooperative agreements. Together, we will look for efficiencies at each location. Due to the large scope of the task ahead, we will utilize mass appraisal techniques where appropriate and automate the acquisition process. These cost saving measures will allow us to transfer more land to tribes and ensure that resources are devoted to critical program components such as outreach by which tribes can efficiently communicate to their members the lasting positive impact of land consolidation for future generations. Implementation costs will be tailored to the needs of each location to maximize the amount spent on the purchase of land.

The Program ultimately will strengthen tribal sovereignty by placing decision-making in the hands of tribal governments. It will free up resources that have been locked-up as land interests have fractionated exponentially over time. In the meantime, tribal governments will be guiding implementation on their reservations.

Interior and Indian country have been given a rare opportunity to work together—government-to-government—with substantial resources to solve a very serious problem. We have already begun work with several tribes and will be engaging with more tribes in the coming weeks. We have a very difficult problem to address and we must work smart —together—to solve it. Let’s maximize this incredible opportunity to make a difference for Indian country.

Kevin K. Washburn is the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior and a member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma.

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Two Bears Growling's picture
Here we go again with the washichu government thinking we need THEM to keep OUR lands in a trust & not manage things ourselves. Mr. Washburn, we First Nations people do NOT need anyone treating us as children. We are intelligent & wise people. We have many, many well-educated tribal people who can & are fully capable of handing our business affairs. I hope the BIA is dissolved soon. The BIA has not been needed in a few decades. We do not need the Washichu Nation telling us how to run our affairs. We do not need or want any government officials telling us what is in OUR best interests. WE are not ignorant children. FAR, FAR from it! We may have to deal with things & legal matters in your white world, but we are NOT of your world. We are our OWN many nations within the confines of this country that was stolen from our people through murder, outright fraud, thievery & shady deals. YOUR government is the one who made these hundreds of treaties with many of our First Nations People. YOUR government is the one who initially broke every single treaty YOU originally agreed to uphold. Now you know without a doubt why our First Nations people do not trust anything YOUR government says. Your people have lied to OUR people for hundreds of years. Words without positive actions are words that are not believed nor will they ever be believed. First Nations people have a VERY long memory. Think about that the next time your government deals with our many people across Turtle Island.
Two Bears Growling
tmsyr11's picture
Well see IF "first nations" people learned from especially the last 5+ years of the current White House. I have yet to see any of this President 'promises' come full circle because he can't, won't, doesn't know how to 'communicate' with his legislative co-horts (US House and US Senate). The 'earth and moon' costs US MONEY and/or US TAX dollars that another special interest group (illegal aliens, foreign interests, Egypt, Syria, US Federal Workers) won't get. So much for cashing in the blank check the US President promised - there is no money OR there is insufficent funds.