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Bill to settle 'Cobell' moves forward

RAPID CITY, S.D. – Congressional work to bring a settlement in Cobell v. Kempthorne may be peppered with problems.

The administration wants to end the practice of land fractionation, which would simplify the accounting of lease payments to Individual Indian Money account holders, but some tribal leaders want more say over land usage to allow tribal members a connection to the land, even if it’s just a shovelful of dirt.

Senate Bill 1439, in draft form, addresses the Cobell case with a monetary settlement to IIM account holders, single-digit land ownership and BIA restructuring, and has a provision for tribal control over land issues, among other factors.

General counsel for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs traveled to Indian country to collect input on the bill, only to find there is no consensus among tribal leaders between regions or within a region. 

Fractionation of land and how parcels of original allotments are handed down to heirs is of primary concern for the Plains tribes. Even holding onto a shovelful of land is important to people, said Alex White Plume, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

“Some own a shovelful of dirt; that’s what makes them a member of our tribe. This will devastate a lot of Indians. I am totally opposed to this,” White Plume said.

The administration wants fewer owners of a tract of land for accounting purposes. To own even a small parcel is still a connection to the homelands, some tribal leaders say.

Some allotments are divided into parcels less than a foot square, with hundreds and even thousands of owners listed on an original allotment or tract.

The administration wants ownership of land parcels to be in the single-digit range. Family members could buy out others; some of the land could go to non-Indian land owners and some to the tribes.

David Mullon Jr., majority general counsel for the SCIA, said that Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., committee chairman, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., committee vice chairman, wanted to prevent any land going to non-Indian owners.

Mullon said that tribal members need a connection to the land and S. 1439 should reflect that connection, but still, a means to eliminate fractionation is paramount with the administration.

Many landowners in the Plains lease land for grazing and farming purposes. What may work, as was suggested by two tribal officials who are also ranchers, former Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Charles Colombe and Matt Lopez, councilman from Standing Rock, was to form family corporations: then the lease payments could go to the corporation and each person would have a share, but also maintain a connection to the land.

“We have never trusted the federal government, and now you want us to give up our land,” White Plume said.

Stocks and bonds can be calculated down to the penny; why not the land, he suggested.

“It’s been awful for us for 200 years. We shouldn’t own the land, let us go on our merry way – we want all the land back,” he said.

“You treat us as wards; I am fed up with the way we are treated,” he said.

Michael Jandreau, chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, said that land held by the tribe is understood to be land also owned by the tribal membership.

“When the tribes buy land, the people understand their interest is accelerated,” Jandreau said.

Title III of the proposed legislation establishes a demonstration project that will allow 50 tribes to participate, essentially to tell the administration what the tribal priorities are. Many tribes looked at the demonstration project as a self-governance measure, something Plains tribes oppose; but Mullon said it was not, that the provision would fit all tribes.

Preference to participate in the demonstration project should go to large land-based tribes, said Yankton Sioux Tribe Chairman Robert Cournoyer.

Tribes will be chosen on a first-come, first-served basis.

“We have a lot of land, but no money; people with the most money get to first base. People East and West don’t know what it means to be poor,” Cournoyer said.

The tribes would submit a land use plan that the secretary will abide by, and safeguards in the bill will prevent tribes from abusing landowners.

“Make sure the allottees are protected. We have people who have never had control of their land. An independent tribal court is needed to protect the allottees,” said Colombe.

“If we are telling allottees we are doing something good for them, we had better back it up,” Colombe said.

Mullon said the demonstration project portion of the bill gives the tribes some “home rule” in how the federal dollars are spent.

“We are trying to let you develop your own protection. The system now is not a good system.

“Out here, money from land is not the most important thing about it,” Mullon said.

Some negotiations are still needed between the Senate committee and the administration over some provisions in the bill. There is a companion bill in the House. A consensus concluded that the bill would have to pass this September before the pre-election recess while the Senate is focused on appropriations measures.