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Members of Congress Want More Native Control of Cobell Buyback Program

Ten Republican members of Congress have sent U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell a new letter saying that they want her department to strengthen the land buyback portion of the Cobell settlement in ways that would give tribes more control.

“As was aired during an April 3, 2014 Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs hearing, a major criticism of the roll-out of the program is the Department’s insistence that it is without authority to permit the tribes to carry out what are in reality the most important functions relative to the program,” the Congress members wrote in their letter, dated May 22. “These functions include making final offers to willing sellers, rendering payment for interests sold, and others.”

The land buyback program was created as part of the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement between the Obama administration and the lead plaintiffs in the trust case. The program, meant to reduce fractionation of lands in Indian country caused by historical federal bureaucracies, encompasses $1.9 billion of the overall settlement.

Interior has 10 years from the approval of the settlement in 2011 to buy lands from individuals and then make offers to tribes for them to purchase the lands. At the end of 10 years, any unspent money would go back to the federal government.

Interior officials have taken the position that they should be in control of the administration of the program, and they say the congressional law that authorized the program requires it.

But the Congress members say that is not so. They point in their letter to language in the settlement agreement that would allow Interior to relinquish power to allow an “entity of the tribal government to carry out some or all of the Secretary’s land acquisition program….”

“Given the 10-year authority for the program is running, we urge the Department to immediately take whatever steps are necessary to permit Indian tribes – at their request – to assume as many of the functions of the land acquisition program that they have the ability to administer,” the Congress members wrote.

The congressional letter writers included Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, as well as Oklahoma Republican Reps. Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullin, the only two Native Americans currently serving in Congress.

Reps. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Paul Cook (R-Calif.), Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), and James Lankford (R-Okla.) also signed on.

While Interior started this spring to make offers to a handful of tribes under the buyback program, and it is focusing on approximately 50 more, several tribal leaders have been critical of progress to date. Some have said the department is being too bureaucratic and paternalistic. Some have also expressed worry to Congress about publicly airing concerns for fear the administration might be less likely to grant offers to their communities in the future.

“The way this thing is going now, it’s not working,” Mark Azure, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council, testified before the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs at its April hearing, where he and other tribal leaders requested increased tribal control and faster action by Interior.

“We are working as fast as we can,” Lawrence Roberts, principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian affairs at Interior, testified at the same hearing, where he vowed that the department would continue to consult with more tribes and make more offers soon.

Congress members, especially Young, have also asked Interior to use more common sense when it comes to the buyback money, such as by placing it in an interest-bearing account so that there would be more money for Indian country in the long run.

Interior officials, including Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor and Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn, said during a recent press conference call that it would require congressional approval to place the money in an interest-bearing account.

But they did express interest in the idea.

“I think it’s something that we are very open to discussing and maybe moving forward on,” Connor said. “It seems to have certainly some merit for further consideration.”

Young has since agreed that congressional approval would be required for the money to be placed in an interest-bearing account.

“Congressman Young believes changes to the buyback program, including the interest bearing account, could be accomplished through the amendment process,” said Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman for Young, “and [he] may seek changes beyond those identified by [Interior] after consulting with tribal leaders and individual Indian landowners.”

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Members of Congress Want More Native Control of Cobell Buyback Program

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