President Obama and the Native American Community

Implementing a New Era in our Government to Government Relationship

In an important step toward addressing a problem that has affected generations of American Indian people, last week the Department of the Interior released the Obama Administration’s draft plan for implementing the Cobell Land Consolidation Program.  The program is a major component of the Cobell settlement agreement which was signed into law by President Obama as part of the Claims Resolution Act of 2010.  The land consolidation program will facilitate the voluntary buy-back of fractionated trust and restricted fee land interests owned by individual American Indians, thereby consolidating fractionated lands for the benefit of tribal communities.  The Cobell settlement establishes a $1.9 billion fund to implement the program. 

The Cobell settlement is the largest government class-action settlement in our country’s history.  And while the settlement and land consolidation program will not be finalized until all the court approvals are completed, the Department of the Interior has already actively engaged tribal leaders in seven government to government consultations on how to best implement the land consolidation program. 

The Cobell Land Consolidation Draft Plan is focused on three areas;

  • Program 1: Targeted Land Fractionation Program to reduce land fractionation in highly fractionated areas in a timely and cost-efficient manner that incorporates tribal priorities and promotes tribal participation.
  • Program 2: Willing Seller Program to provide flexibility in purchasing fractionated interests from willing sellers, regardless of whether or not the interests are included in the Targeted Land Fractionation Program.
  • Cooperative Agreements with Tribes to recognize that in implementing these programs, the Department of the Interior is exploring criteria that would allow tribes to seek cooperative agreements to implement the programs consistent with the goals of the plan. 

Tribal leaders have been engaged and consulted in the development of the draft plan since May of 2011, when the United States District Court in the Cobell case allowed representatives of the United States to communicate with Cobell class members.  The draft plan that came out of those seven consultation sessions has been published in the Federal Register and the comment period for the draft plan will remain open until March 19, 2012.

The Obama Administration remains committed to moving into a new era in our government to government relationship by resolving the longstanding disputes of the past and this draft plan represents an important step forward on a challenge that has plagued tribes for generations.  As with all significant steps forward in tribal policy, the progress made thus far could not have happened without the expertise and cooperation of tribal leaders demonstrated throughout the consultation process.  We look forward to continuing this important work and as President Obama said at the 2011 White House Tribal Nations Conference, “We haven’t solved all our problems.  We’ve got a long road ahead.  But I believe that one day, we’re going to be able to look back on these years and say that this was a turning point.” 

For more information on the Cobell Trust Land Consolidation Program please visit www.doi.gov/cobell.

Charlie Galbraith is an Associate Director in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement.

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