On December 16, 2010, President Barack Obama endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) with great fanfare. The U.S. State Department then proclaimed that the declaration expresses “aspirations that this country seeks to achieve within the structure of the U.S. Constitution, laws, and international obligations, while also seeking, where appropriate, to improve our laws and policies.”
Five days later, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia approved a settlement of Cobell v. Norton, which resulted in a $3.4 billion payout to a class of tribal members – $1.9 billion of which would eventually fund what is today the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Land Buy Back Program. Unfortunately, the Buy Back Program does not mark any improvement in federal Indian law or policy. To the contrary, that program runs counter to UNDRIP and other international human rights laws.
The most troublesome part of the program is that it will facilitate the forced sale of tribal members’ allotted or restricted fee lands, and, in turn, forcibly and permanently remove individual Indians from their ancestral lands. This was not the result of Interior oversight — Interior has spoken in code about this reality from day one. In 2012, the department articulated a strategy to “identify tracts with relatively low fractionation and a few ‘large’ interest owners, the acquisition of whose interests could bring a tribe to a controlling level of interest in that tract with a minimal number of acquisitions.” As is now clear, “controlling level of interest” referred to a mechanism in the federal Indian Land Consolidation Act (ILCA) that permits tribes that acquire a simple 51 percent majority interest in allotted or restricted fee lands to obtain the minority owners’ land interests by forced sale. 25 U.S.C. § 2204(a).
A year later, after folks began to crack Interior’s code, the agency proclaimed: “There will be NO forced sales.” But when pressed for a more honest answer during consultations with tribal governments in early 2013 — roughly an entire year after the Buy Back strategy was pronounced (hardly “meaningful collaboration with tribal officials” promised by the Obama administration — agency top brass were forced to admit that once Interior brings a tribe into a controlling 51 percent interest, the controlling tribe is empowered by federal law to force the sale of the remaining minority interest(s). In other words, the Buy Back Program equates to forced sales of individual Indian landholdings.
Still, even in late 2013, Interior continued to pretend that “the Buy Back Program is strictly voluntary.” Most recently, Interior buried the following statement in an appendix to its Updated Buy Back Implementation Plan: “Under the March 2011 terms of the Settlement and the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, all sales are voluntary.” But, “The Department has no control over the prerogatives of sovereign tribal nations to exercise whatever rights they may have regarding the purchase of land outside of the confines of the Buy Back Program.” Again, Interior is misleading when discussing the forced sale provision of 25 U.S.C. § 2204(a).
Interior’s continued sleight of hand is appalling. But more importantly, the fundamental underpinning of the federal Buy Back strategy — catalyzing forced sales of individual Indian owned lands — violates international human rights.
Article I of UNDRIP makes clear that indigenous individuals “have the right to full enjoyment . . . of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in . . . international human rights law.” Article 17 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen guarantees that “[p]roperty being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of it, unless demanded by public necessity, legally constituted, explicitly demands it, and under the condition of a just and prior indemnity.” Article 17, of course, reads very similar to the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prevents takings of private property for public use without just compensation (and incidentally, served as the basis for the U.S. Supreme Court’s smack down of the ILCA’s escheat provision in Irving v. Hodel, 481 U.S. 704 (1987))...
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Land Buy Back Program has been lauded as the “hallmark” of the $3.4 billion Cobell v. Salazar settlement. As the Buy Back Program now lifts off in hurried fashion at Makah and Pine Ridge, the program dishonors both the letter and spirit of Cobell.
Cobell settled more than 500,000 tribal members’ trust land and asset mismanagement claims, dating back to the 1890s. Not tribal government claims; tribal member claims. Now, $1.9 billion in tribal member settlement monies has been allocated to help tribes “buy back” those members’ allotted or restricted fee lands. In practice, these “buy backs” are accomplished through the forced sale of tribal members’ ancestral lands. Injustice to individual Cobell class members aside, assuming that financially supporting a tribe will benefit that tribe’s members, one would hope that the buy-back wealth would be spread throughout Indian Country. After all, those 500,000 members of the Cobell class surely represent the vast majority of the 566 federally recognized tribes.
But it has recently come to light that Interior has limited the lion’s share of the $1.9 billion in buy back funding to only 40 tribes. Interior’s outside appraisers recently let it slip that “the program will exclude reservations east of the Mississippi and in Alaska.” Interior was quick to retract that statement, but the genie was already out of the bottle. If that were not bad enough, other swaths of Indian Country with large Indian populations west of the Mississippi, like all of California Indian country (save the Washoe Tribe, which is headquartered in Nevada), are excluded from the program.
Cobell, for better or worse, was fought for all of Indian Country, not just 40 tribes. For the sake of the 500,000-plus Cobell class members whose land and related claims were extinguished for eternity, tribal communities west of the Mississippi, in Alaska and California, and elsewhere, all deserve to share in the Buy Back wealth.
The fact is that the Buy Back Program and its goal to consolidate fractionated Indian lands have little to do with what is right or fair. The program is not really about affording “benefits of those lands for the tribes and their members” as Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes once professed; or “expand[ing] tribal economic development opportunities across Indian Country” as Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn said more recently. The program is designed to serve the best interests of the United States; to resolve “enormous administrative difficulties for the government” – and related liability – caused by fractionation. Cobell v. Salazar, 573 F.3d 808 (D.C. Cir. 2009). To feign otherwise is dishonest.
As to the letter of the law that is Cobell, the Buy Back Program fares no better. In 2004, the U.S. District Court for the District Court of Columbia in Cobell v. Norton, affirmed that “Interior may acquire land from individual Indian owners to consolidate fractional ownership interests and thereby ‘lessen the number of owners.’” 225 F.R.D. 41 (D.D.C. 2004). However, the court went on to hold that the United States’ trust-fiduciary responsibility requires that the “individual Indian owner of trust lands . . . give truly informed consent to the sale of trust corpus” before any sale is approved by Interior.
The Cobell court made clear that any such sale requires clear “communication between individual Indian trust-land owners and agents of Interior” and that “trust beneficiaries ought not have to make the decision to sell trust assets without access to all the relevant information,” including answers to any questions or concerns they may have. More generally, legal scholar Derek Haskew explains that the United States’ fiduciary duties to tribal member landowners includes consultation, which “can roughly be understood as communication by Indian beneficiaries of their desires to the federal trustees who make ultimate determinations about what happens with the lands Indians occupy.” 24 AM. IND. L. REV. 21 (2000)...
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