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Minnesota Chippewa tribes get millions to solidify land ownership

The U.S government on Tuesday unveiled its largest-ever program to help American Indian tribes identify and buy back land broken up from reservations 125 years ago.

The Interior Department announced that $1.9 billion is now available to help tribes acquire ownership of million acres of land allotted to individual Indians in 1887.

That’s when the government broke up reservations from communal tribal ownership and gave the heads of each home 80 or 160 acres. But in the generations since then, the exact ownership of the land has become muddled.

“It’s a probate nightmare. In some cases, it’s hundreds, maybe even thousands of heirs to one plot of land,” Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, told the News Tribune.

Many, but not all of the heirs are American Indian. When tracts have so many co-owners, it’s been nearly impossible for tribes to get legal authority to use the land, leading to tracts within reservations lying idle, unusable for housing, timber management or other economic development.

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Minnesota’s six Chippewa tribes will be eligible for about $20 million to start tracking down willing sellers for 979 tracts totaling more than 60,000 acres and involving some 71,000 heirs to the fractionated land.

“We have tracts ranging from one to maybe 1,800 owners,” said Tim Krohn of the Fond du Lac Land Department. “It’s like owning shares of a company. … Some people own tiny fractions of the total plot of land.”

Of the 100,000 acres within the boundary of the Fond du Lac Reservation in Carlton and St. Louis counties, about 36,000 are owned by or controlled by the tribe. But of that, about 8,000 acres are split up and owned by tribal members or their heirs, and technically are private property.

Under the new program, if the tribe can track down and purchase 51 percent ownership from willing sellers, it can take management of the land. All of the heirs must be paid fair market value for their shares of the property.

“Freeing up fractionated lands for the benefit of tribal nations will increase the number of acres in tribal land bases, stimulate economic development and promote tribal sovereignty and self-determination,” David J. Hayes, deputy secretary of the Interior, said in a statement.

Fractionation of Indian lands stems primarily from the General Allotment Act of 1887 that allotted tribal lands to individual tribal members, often in 80- or 160-acre parcels. The lands have been handed down to heirs over successive generations, causing the number of shared interests in one parcel to grow exponentially. Nationwide, more than 92,000 tracts of land held in trust for American Indians contain 2.9 million fractional interests on 150 reservations.

The money comes from the so-called Cobell settlement, a $3.4 billion class-action lawsuit against the government filed by Montana’s Elouise Cobell in 1996 alleging mismanagement of royalties owed to Indians since the late 1800s. The settlement was approved by Congress in 2010 and made final on Nov. 24, after appeals were exhausted through the U.S. Supreme Court.


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