Recently, the U.S. Department of Interior released its draft proposal for utilizing the $1.9 billion from the Cobell settlement allocated for consolidating Indian Lands. According to John Dossett, the general counsel for the Native Congress of American Indians, cited in an article by the Associated Press, “the general counsel for the Native Congress of American Indians, said the draft proposal appears to address most of the tribes’ major concerns. Of particular importance was that the tribes be involved in implementing and administering the land consolidation program through cooperative agreements, which are addressed in the draft plan. While the plan may have support from Tribal Governments, it does not address the concerns of many individual land owners who feel that programs like this take advantage of people’s desperation, forever divesting them of their lands for a small one-time payment, and transferring them to the control of Tribal Governments who may not use them for the benefit of their people as a whole. Of course, the impact of transferring large amounts of land from individual to tribal management will depend upon the particular tribe.
The alternative to this strategy has been to support individuals to consolidate their lands on their own through estate planning, tribal land exchange programs, partitions, and gift deeds. Despite their proven success, funding for these programs have been cut dramatically in the past few years, leaving little help and few options for Indian land owners to protect their lands. Not only is the government not sufficiently supporting these strategies, their appraisal process is backlogged, creating on of the biggest hurdles in the process to consolidate their lands. According to a study by Village Earth of the Pine Ridge Reservation, the average time for a land exchange application to be processed is nearly 5 years! Yet, if you want to sell your lands through programs like Indian Lands Consolidation Act (ILCA), the process can take a matter of weeks. Furthermore, in more than one instance, we have noted BIA workers providing incorrect information about the options available to land owners and then advising them to sell her land through ILCA. While we do not oppose solutions like the one proposed by the Department of Interior, advocating on behalf of Individual land owners, we feel strongly that equivalent support should be made available to programs that support individuals and families wanting to consolidate and utilize their lands or prevent further fractionation through estate planning.
If you’re concerned about draft proposal please send your comments before March 1st, 2012 to the designated contact at the Department of Interior - Meghan_Conklin@ios.doi.gov