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Coeur d’Alene Tribe plans to buy back lands with $4.1 million federal settlement

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe is preparing to use a $4.1 million federal settlement to buy back lands on its North Idaho reservation.

The program targets parcels with “fractionalized ownership,” which is a widespread problem on American Indian reservations, said Heather Keen, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s public relations director.

Many of the Indian-owned parcels on the 345,000-acre Coeur d’Alene Reservation have 20 or more property owners, which makes it difficult to do anything with the land, Keen said. “It ends up sitting idle.”

The multiple ownerships are a legacy of the 1887 General Allotment Act, which gave parcels that were previously communally owned by the tribes to individuals. Reservation lands that weren’t allotted to Indians were declared surplus and opened for white settlement.

Until recently, very few members of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe had wills, Keen said. So, those allotted lands, usually 80 or 160 acres, passed to multiple heirs. After several generations, the parcels had dozens or even hundreds of owners.

The U.S. Department of Interior is working with 21 tribes as part of a $1.9 billion program to buy land parcels owned by multiple Indian owners and turn them over to tribal governments. Other tribes will be added to the program in the future. About 150 reservations are eligible to participate in the program, federal officials said.

To date, the buyback program has spent $62 million, restoring 177,000 acres to tribal governments, officials said.

The buyback program targets willing sellers, Keen said. The Department of Interior is working on property appraisals on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, which must be finished before tribal officials can make offers and buy land. The appraisals should be done by Aug. 1.

In the meantime, Keen said, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe wants to hear from tribal members who might be interested in selling their land. Meetings next week will explain the process.

Consolidating land ownership has been a long-standing goal of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, but until recently, funds were limited, Keen said.

Money for the land buyback program comes from a $3.4 billion settlement of a class-action suit filed by the late Elouise Cobell, of Browning, Montana. The lawsuit accused the Interior Department of mismanaging trust money held by the government for hundreds of thousands of Indian landowners. The settlement was approved in 2012.

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