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Sisseton-Wahpeton enters land buyback program

By Regina Garcia Cano

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SIOUX FALLS (AP) — The Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribe has agreed to enter a federal land buyback program that aims to help Native American tribes purchase parcels of reservation land that are owned by multiple people.

The agreement announced Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Interior will help the tribe in the Lake Traverse Reservation, located in northeast South Dakota and southeast North Dakota, host outreach programs and solicit interest from owners in an effort to consolidate so-called fractionated interests.

The 1887 Dawes Act split tribal lands into individual allotments — 80- to 160-acre parcels, in most cases — that have been passed down to multiple heirs. Using or leasing those tracts requires approval of all the owners, so often they sit without being developed.

The Interior Department is now trying to buy back those lands, consolidate them and hold them in trust for the tribe.

Tribal Chairman Robert Shepherd said the tribe has already been acquiring fractionated lands during the past three decades. Shepard said the efforts to decrease fractionation "are made in the spirit of our inherent tribal sovereignty and as a means of self-determination."

The program is voluntary, meaning owners do not have to sell their fractionated interests. The department expects to send offers to willing sellers later this year.

"We know that Nation-to-Nation cooperation and collaboration is the key to successfully implementing this historic opportunity to reduce fractionation and strengthen tribal sovereignty," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.

Estimates show that the Interior Department holds about 56 million acres in trust for American Indians in more than 200,000 tracts. Of those, around 94,000 — spread out among 150 reservations — have multiple owners who each hold a fractional interest that can be sold through the buyback program.

Allotting reservation land to individual tribal members, who passed it to heirs, was once a government method for assimilating American Indians.

The 10-year buyback program stems from the settlement of a nearly 17-year lawsuit over more than a century's worth of mismanaged trust money held by the government for individual Indian landowners.

Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., filed the lawsuit in 1996 and the $3.4 billion settlement was finalized in 2012.

The federal agency started a buyback program with Oglala Sioux Tribe late last year and made thousands of offers for land on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Payments to sellers during the first round of buy backs exceeded $10 million. The department said some individuals received more than $100,000.