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Fort Belknap Indian Community, Montana

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A California businessman has outbid the tribes for 71 mining claims in the heart of the defunct Zortman and Landusky gold mines in north-central Montana. The claims, which encompass about 1,000 acres of land, were auctioned off as part of the Reno, Nev., bankruptcy proceedings of Pegasus Gold Corp. The company backed away from plans to expand the mines in 1998. The firm later declared bankruptcy after the tribes won a $37 million judgment against the company over polluted water. The land sold Sept. 4 was 'right, smack on top of the (waste) pits' of the former mines, said Tim Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center of Helena. While the claims are not located on pristine land, they represent an important part of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Sioux tribes' quest to reclaim land that was taken from their reservation a century ago, Coulter said. 'They've been trying to restore that land to the reservation for a long time,' he said. Lucas Ployhar of Los Angeles submitted the highest big of $135,000 for the 71 mining claims. The auction is the latest snag in the tribes' battle over the twin gold mines, which are on land tribal members consider sacred.