More than $145 million has been spent by the federal government since 2014 buying land shares for Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribal governments, according to the Department of Interior.

Interior officials, who last week made another $177 million in offers to private Crow landowners, tell The Gazette that tribal ownership interest in a quarter million acres has already been acquired on the tribal government’s behalf. Another 20,130 acres in ownership interest has been purchased for the Northern Cheyenne government under the same program.

The Crow deadline for accepting the offers is Feb. 11. The Northern Cheyenne face an earlier deadline, Jan. 14.

The land buys stem from the $3.4 billion Eloise Cobell class-action lawsuit over royalties owed to hundreds of thousands of tribal members, but mismanaged by the federal government. The settlement required the federal government to buy back lands it had taken from tribal governments and given to individual Native Americans more than a century ago. The Land Buy-Back Program launched in 2012.

“During the initial implementation at the Crow Reservation, the Program consolidated 76,922 fractional interests on 3,348 tracts of land. The equivalent acres consolidated was 243,800,” said Michael Estes, communications manager for the Buy-Back Program.

The key term in understanding what tribes are receiving is “ownership interest,” Estes said. Say five Crow tribal members co-own 200 acres of land, with two of the members owning a 50 percent interest. If those two owners accept a buy-back offer, the tribe is then given a 50 percent interest in what happens on all 200 acres, not just a deed to half the land.

The goal of the program is to make the land usable again after years of fractionalization stemming from the 1887 Dawes Act and the 1920 Crow Allotment Act.

The Dawes Act empowered the president of the United States to survey Native American tribal land and divide it into allotments, which were then given to individual tribal members. The Crow Allotment Act determined specifically which tribal members received land.

Over time, land ownership became fragmented. The original recipients died, passed down their ownership shares to heirs, who then did the same, each generation passing ownership down to more offspring, until there were so many owners that getting agreement on what to do with the land became impossible.

Because doing anything with the land required some shareholder cooperation, the property often sat unused. In one case, 80 acres of Crow land was co-owned by 575 family members.

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At the launch of the buy-back program in 2014, the Crow tribal government planned on putting the land to use making money for the tribe, possibly by grazing cattle. The Crow government, which has been shut down for the Christmas holiday since Dec. 20, was unavailable to talk about whether its plans for the Interior purchased land have changed.

During the first round of buy-back offers, 2,560 Crow landowners accepted offers worth $130,477,269. The tribe not only receives a share in surface rights, but also mineral rights shares, should the property be drilled for oil and gas, or mined.

The latest round of offers, the $177 million, has already secured $1.09 million in share payments to private Crow landowners, according to Interior. The program has been popular with Crow landowners, with 61.7 percent of the offers being accepted, one of the highest rates in the nation.

Northern Cheyenne landowners have been less inclined than the Crow to accept offers, though roughly 3,000 people have received offers since the program started and $15.7 million has been paid out to Northern Cheyenne landowners. There are 2,000 offers on the table for Northern Cheyenne landowners now, with an acceptance deadline three weeks away.

Nationwide the Land Buy-Back Program has consolidated 796,846 fractional interests on 44,055 tracts of land. The equivalent acres consolidated is 2,244,969. The value of the offers accepted is more than $1.3 billion.

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