WASHINGTON -- After bungling the management of Indian lands for generations, the federal government wants to make amends by spending nearly $2 billion to buy 10 million acres of land for 150 tribes across the nation.
Thats roughly twice the size of Massachusetts and would mark the largest expansion of the U.S. governments land trust for tribes, which now covers 46 million acres.
To make the plan work, the government wants to find willing sellers to buy back reservation land it first gave to individual tribal members in 1887, often in tracts of 80 to 160 acres.
We can improve Indian Country if people will go along with this program and sell their interests back to their tribes, Kevin Washburn, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said in an interview.
It wont be easy. With the land changing hands over the decades, many parcels now have hundreds or thousands of owners.
Congress signed off on the land buy in 2010 to settle a lawsuit. The government had pledged to keep track of all royalties generated from the land for such things as grazing or logging, but that money never went back to benefit tribal members as promised.
Now, with so many owners involved, tribes complain that its nearly impossible to get the permission needed to develop or lease the land.
Yet even though the government doesnt expect to make its first purchase offer until the end of the year, critics already predict the worst. They fear too many tribes will be overlooked in the buying spree and that many private landowners will get bullied into sales.
In California, which has more federally recognized tribes than any other state except Alaska, only one tribe stands to be among the top 40 beneficiaries.
Theres no love for California Indian Country, said Gabriel Galanda, a Seattle lawyer and a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Mendocino County, Calif. He called the program a disaster in the making.
When tribal leaders met with government officials in Seattle, Chief James Allan of Idahos Coeur dAlene Tribe complained that 45 percent of the money will go to just seven tribes.
Were all going to be fighting for scraps, he said.
The plan calls for the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to buy back more than 92,000 parcels from private landowners. The effort, expected to last until 2022, will begin with pilot projects in Washington state, Montana and South Dakota.
Many property owners, with close ties to the land, are expected to be reluctant sellers.
This is a modern day retaking of the land and, given the historical implications of that, they dont want to relive it, Les Riding-In, assistant dean and director of graduate studies at the University of Texas-Arlington and a member of the Comanche Tribe, said in an interview. Its reminiscent of how the government took the land back when colonization was happening.
Riding-In said his family has decided not to sell its land in Oklahoma because the property represents a link to the past and something thats of value to us as an identity issue.
He predicted that federal authorities will encounter resistance from many tribal members likely to be suspicious of any offers coming from Washington.
Its just a huge undertaking, Riding-In said. The trust factor is not high enough for most people to give up what they have.