Osage Nation added as partner in DOI Land Buy-Back Program

Staff Writer
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

The Osage Nation has signed a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of the Interior for participating in a tribal Land Buy-Back Program, USDOI Deputy Secretary Michael Connor said Thursday.

Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear signed the initial agreement last week to begin outreach for the Land Buy-Back Program. Outreach efforts will start in late June or early July and offers are expected to go out in August, tribal officials said.

The agreement — signed Tuesday at the Pawhuska Business Strategy Center — gives the tribe $119,288 for outreach efforts that will include town hall meetings, mail-outs, advertising and a social-media push aimed at notifying restricted landowners about the opportunity to sell their land interest, Osage officials said.

By facilitating the purchase of individual interests in fractionated trust lands, the Buy-Back Program is designed to allow consolidation of land ownership for the benefit of the tribal community. Active participation in the program will allow the tribe to help identify acquisition priorities and to lead owner-outreach efforts, the official said.

Connor said the federal department has entered into agreements with 20 tribal nations, thus far. Each cooperative agreement “is unique in time, scope and responsibilities based on the expressed interests of the tribe,” he added.

The settlement agreement in the Cobell trust lawsuit called for implementation of the program within 10 years. Under the current plan, sovereign tribal governments will be provided with all federal resources needed to help them carry out the program in accordance with their individual priorities. The official said the program should strengthen Native American communities.

“We look forward to working with Osage Nation to make sure landowners have the information they need to make informed decisions about their land,” said Connor.

Since the buy-back program started in December 2013, nearly $435 million has been paid to individual landowners and the equivalent of more than 690,000 acres of land has been restored to tribal governments, department records show.

According to Standing Bear, the tribe owned almost the entire 1.5-million acres of the Osage Reservation in 1906 — a year before Oklahoma statehood. Less than four percent of that land is in Osage ownership today, he said, adding that much of the remaining land is held in fractionated ownership.

“The Land-Buy Back Program provides an opportunity for the Osage Nation to purchase some of the fractionated interests for complete ownership of land parcels,” Standing Bear said. “By having one owner, we can finally determine the highest and best use of the land.”

There are around 66,000 acres in the Osage Nation with nearly 700 individual landowners eligible for the program. Due to the limited amount of money the Nation expects to receive for purchasing the land, only landowners who own parcels of land in which the Nation also owns a fractionated interest will be contacted, officials added.

Nationwide, there are an estimated 245,000 owners of nearly three million fractional interests who are eligible to participate in the Buy-Back Program, the Interior Department said. Most of those owners currently see little or no economic benefit from what are often small, undivided interests in lands that cannot be utilized because of their highly fractionated state, officials added.

The Cobell Settlement’s land-consolidation component provided $1.9 billion to purchase fractional land interests under the Buy-Back Program. Owners who voluntarily sell their land receive payments directly into their Individual Indian Money (IIM) accounts. Consolidated interests are immediately transferred to tribal governments and kept in trust until used in a way which will benefit the tribe and its members.

Land consolidation activities such as planning, outreach, mapping, mineral evaluations, appraisals or acquisitions are expected to take place at more than 40 regional offices through the middle of 2017. Osage officials added that three short-term positions will be created in connection with the outreach efforts.

Landowners can contact the Trust Beneficiary Call Center at 888-678-6836 to update their contact information, ask questions about their land or purchase offers, and learn about financial planning resources. More information is available online at http://www.doi.gov/buybackprogram/landowners.

Initiated by individual Indians who alleged the federal government mismanaged their trust accounts, the Cobell case was originally filed in 1996 in U.S. District Court of Washington, D.C. In 2008, a court award of $455.6 million to the plaintiffs was appealed and eventually vacated. A Cobell settlement was announced in late 2009 and Congress subsequently passed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010 to provide $3.4 billion for the class-action settlement.