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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - The U.S. Department of the Interior has finalized the first cooperative agreement in a $1.9 billion Native American land buyback program stemming from the settlement of a nearly 17-year lawsuit over more than a century's worth of mismanaged trust royalties, federal officials announced Monday.
The agreement reached with the Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota outlines the strategy and resources to be provided to tribal leaders for outreach and education. Department officials said they intend to make the first offers by the end of the year.
Bryan Brewer, the Oglala Sioux Tribe's president, said outreach workers are already out meeting with the people in the communities.
"I am hoping that we will be able to start buying the fractionated land that is out there with the money that is available," Brewer said in a statement. "We are also anticipating the first offer to be complete within the month."
Land fractionation was caused by the 1887 Dawes Act, which split tribal lands into individual allotments of 80- to 160-acre parcels, in most cases. Those allotments were inherited by multiple heirs with each passing generation. There are now more than 92,000 land tracts with 2.9 million fractional interests. Of that number, more than 21,200 land tracts have 100 or more owners and many parcels have thousands of owners, according to the Interior Department.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the Obama administration wants to reduce fractionation and implement the buyback program in a fair and equitable manner.
"Cooperative agreements give us an opportunity to work together, nation-to-nation, to ensure that the Program's implementation is tailored to the specific priorities of each tribe," Jewell said in a statement. "This agreement reflects a spirit of mutual respect and teamwork as we work together to address this opportunity."
The 10-year buyback program is the largest part of the $3.4 billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed by Elouise Cobell of Browning, Mont., in 1996 and finalized last year.
The Department of Interior said the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is among the most fractionated in the United States, with land interests owned by various individuals including members of other tribes. Pine Ridge holds more than 6,000 tracts with nearly 200,000 purchasable fractional interests, which has made it increasingly difficult to manage the land for economic development and other uses, officials said.
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