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Land advocates say amendments mixed bag

WASHINGTON - Indian land reform advocates aren't particularly happy with some of the amendments to the Indian Land Consolidation Act just signed into law, saying they infringe on tribal sovereignty and trample the rights of individual Indians.

But progress was made in a couple of other amendments, said Theresa Carmody, secretary of the Indian Land Working Group.

The amendments, introduced by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and signed into law in November, authorize the secretary of the Interior to buy "fractionated" parcels of individual allotments, but don't give tribes or individual Indians the same option, Carmody said.

And, she added, parcels of individual allotments of Indians belonging to terminated tribes will continue to fall out of trust status because the U.S. government still won't allow inheritance of trust land by members of non-federally recognized tribes.

"We don't want the federal government saying who can inherit and who can't," Carmody said, maintaining that is a sovereignty issue better left to tribes.

She said this was an especially big problem in the Northwest. Oregon, for instance had 53 tribes terminated, and only five or so restored.

The amendments call for a Land Acquisition Fund to allow the secretary of the Interior to buy fractionated land parcels in trust for tribes, a strange concept since the government already holds the land in trust.

The land will revert to the tribe once income from it is sufficient to repay the government for the purchase price, Carmody said. If the parcel doesn't generate income, it will revert back to the tribe in 20 years.

A buyback program is under way in Wisconsin, she said, and the amendments specify a three-year secretarial purchase effort. After that the program will be re-evaluated. She hopes at that time, tribes and individual Indians will also be allowed to buy fractionated parcels.

Carmody said 25,541 interests in Wisconsin have been purchased to date in the pilot program.

The breakout in the three pilot project, given at the recent group land conference by Stan Speakes, Portland Area BIA director is: Bad River Reservation - 7,997 acres; Lac Courte Oreilles - 11,463, and Lac du Flambeau - 5,395.

The land reform advocate said tribes, rather than the U.S. government, should be the ones buying the land back.

The amendments allow non-Indians for the first time to inherit trust land, if there are no close Indian relatives. Previously, that land would revert to tribes. Although the non-Indian-owned land won't pass out of trust status, it will create taxation and jurisdictional (and therefore sovereignty) issues, Carmody said.

She said she was pleased with a change in the tangled rules covering transactions in the "fractionated" parcels (as more and more heirs get undivided interests in allotments, it is nearly impossible to get agreement on what to do with the land).

Previously, someone trying to deed his or her interest in a parcel had to get the agreement of all the co-owners and there are hundreds of owners on some of them. Also, they could only deal with another co-owner of that parcel, and the other person had to be related.

Now one can deed a parcel to any other Indian, related or not, and there is no need to get all those permissions, she said.

The amendments also finally did away with a provision, found unconstitutional in 1997, which allowed fractionated interests of less than 2 percent to be taken from individual Indians, without compensation, and be deeded to their tribes.

Carmody said the new amendments originally included another version of the unconstitutional land grabs, which the group was able to get deleted. She also said Interior has been very slow in deeding those parcels back to the original owners, as it agreed after losing a court case.

She also said unless more funding is provided, the amendments may prove to be a "hollow bill" in any case.