Can a legal victory make Indian Country whole again?

For over a century, federal law has split Native American land holdings into tiny pieces. A settlement unites some of the splinters, but at a steep cost.

Cowboy After Buffalo got his name in 1971. He was an infant, propped up in his mother’s lap in the backseat of a car, when a man who had been drinking approached to ask if he was a boy or a girl. “A boy,” his mother replied. “A cowboy,” the man said, and it stuck.

 

The After Buffalos had a ranch west of Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where hayfields and aspen groves drape across the eastern front of Glacier National Park. On the 640 acres allotted to the family by the federal government in the early 1900s, and on surrounding allotments, they grazed 160 cow-calf pairs. Cowboy learned to break horses, round up cattle, brand them, castrate them and move them between pastures. The youngest of five siblings, he showed the greatest interest in the ranch. His parents, Barbara and Edward, hoped that someday he would take over its management.

In the early 2000s, they put their hopes in writing. Edward had lost a foot to diabetes and did not know how long he would live. One evening, at the hospital, he asked his children to write three wishes on a scrap of paper. Cowboy was struggling with addiction at the time; he had intermittent work that paid poorly and ran drugs to get by. Still, he wished for the ranch. Since the After Buffalos are members of the Blackfeet Tribe, with their land and mineral assets managed by the federal government, Edward filed a will with the Bureau of Indian Affairs: Cowboy would receive the largest share of land; the rest would be split among Edward’s wife and other children. 

Cowboy got sober in his father’s final years, and Edward gift-deeded him a small parcel, where he could live in a trailer with his wife and kids. Though the family sold the herd to pay bills, Cowboy fixed fences and found other ranchers to sublease the land. He hoped eventually to buy his own cattle. “I wanted to live an honest life,” he said.

But when Edward died in October 2012, and the family gathered before a probate judge, the judge found no will in Edward’s file. “I think everybody was just stunned,” Cowboy recalled. “My mom — I know it hit her hard.” Barbara asked the judge if he could honor her husband’s wishes, but he explained that without a will, under federal Indian law, Edward’s interest in the land would pass to Barbara. This would be for her lifetime only; she could not write a will transferring the interest to Cowboy. Instead, when she died, the property would be shared equally among her husband’s heirs, in a process called “fractionation.”

The family dreaded fractionation. It meant that Cowboy and his four siblings would each be assigned a percent interest in the land, much like shareholders in a company. Before Cowboy could develop the land in any way, he would need approval from enough shareholders to represent a 51 percent interest. Edward had held interest in two 320-acre allotments — one that had belonged to his grandfather, and another to his great uncle. He had owned roughly 39 percent of each of them, which was more than any of the other interest holders, but not enough to make autonomous decisions. The allotment Edward had hoped to will to Cowboy already had 131 interest holders. If fractionated again, it would be even more difficult for Cowboy to access than it had been for Edward himself.

Cowboy was silent. “I think everybody was waiting for my mom to say something,” he recalled, “but she was so far missing the old man, I don’t think she could. And me being the youngest, it wasn’t my place. The judge said, ‘Anyone have anything to say?’ And nobody did.”

On reservations nationwide, the U.S. government manages 156,596 allotments like the After Buffalos’, leasing the land and resources on the owners’ behalf and returning the income to them via trust accounts. In 2012, these allotments contained 4.7 million fractionated interests. Relatively speaking, Cowboy lucked out: It is not uncommon for hundreds — even thousands — of individuals to co-own a single allotment. Even so, he would have to maneuver through a tangled system that was, by all appearances, rigged against him.

Then, in 2013, a new option emerged: Cowboy could sell his interest altogether. Over the next decade, the U.S. Department of Interior planned to spend $1.9 billion purchasing fractionated interests from Indian landowners and consolidating them under tribal ownership. The Land Buy-Back Program, as it was called, was the most significant piece of a $3.4 billion settlement that closed a 14-year battle between Indian landowners and the U.S. government. The dispute had arisen from the government’s mismanagement of Indian property and accounts, and its failure to pay owners billions of dollars of revenue. But its subtext was fractionation, and a century of policy that trapped Indians in a system of false ownership, unable to use the land that belonged to them.

Cowboy hated to consider giving up his land, even to his own tribe, but the possibility lingered with him. “You just live day to day,” he said. “Then, there’s a point where you got to say, ‘Do I sell? What do I do with my land? What good is it doing me?’ ”

 

Cowboy After Buffalo stands with one of his horses on his family’s land on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northern Montana.
Terray Sylvester

The most influential architect of today’s system of Indian land ownership was Massachusetts Sen. Henry Dawes, who once defined “civilized” men as those who “cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey (and) own property.” His 1887 General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, divided reservations into sections and assigned them to Indian families, who were then instructed to farm. Intended to foster individualism and integrate Native Americans into Anglo-American society, the Dawes Act had the opposite effect: Where the land was dry and infertile, particularly on the Great Plains, many families struggled to feed themselves and came to rely heavily on government rations.

Fractionation began with the Dawes Act, but it accelerated after 1934, when Congress stopped assigning allotments to Indian families. By then, there was little left to allot. The Dawes Act had allowed “surplus” reservation land to be auctioned, and 60 million acres had been sold to white homesteaders. The 1906 Burke Act, meanwhile, authorized federal agents to declare certain landowners “competent,” thereby removing their land from federal trust and allowing it to be taxed. Many landowners were never informed and accrued debt unwittingly; others could not afford the taxes. As a result, another 30 million acres were lost to foreclosure. A common story in Indian Country tells of a family who sat down to dinner one night when a strange wagon pulled up to the house. The travelers had come a long way, and the family invited them to eat. When the family asked why they had come, their guests looked surprised and said, “We bought your land.”

A 1911 Department of the Interior poster, left, advertising so-called surplus reservation land for sale, after the Dawes Act assigned tracts to Indian families.
Library of Congress

Today, a great deal of reservation land — a third of some of the largest reservations — is owned by non-Indian people. Furthermore, on many reservations, the majority of Indian-owned land is leased to non-Indian farmers and ranchers. This is a consequence of fractionation: Because it can be so hard for Indian landowners to obtain approval to move projects forward, the land is left fallow or, more often, grouped with other parcels into a “range unit,” which the Bureau of Indian Affairs leases out on landowners’ behalf. When a lease is paid or royalties are earned on an allotment, the BIA sends the proceeds to the U.S. Treasury Department, which issues each interest holder a payment. When there are a lot of interest holders, the payments can be for amounts less than a dollar. This system — of owning land but having little control over it — is a major reason why Indian Country stays poor. It is, many say, why white people run more cows on Indian land than Indian ranchers; why white people earn more money from reservation land; why pastures are pounded dry by overuse; why houses are hard to come by; why they fall into disrepair; why there are few businesses or jobs. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, once dubbed “Poverty’s Poster Child” by The New York Times, is the second largest reservation in the nation and, by some metrics, the most fractionated. In 2002, when agriculture there earned $30 million, Native Americans netted only a third. “Look at the abundance of the land,” an Oglala Lakota business owner told me. “If we were anywhere else, it would be wealth creation, but here it’s the opposite.”

There have been various attempts to address fractionation since it began, most notably the 1983 Indian Land Consolidation Act, which enabled tribes to exchange and purchase interest from landowners at fair market value. But these efforts were poorly funded, and many tribes, chronically in debt, could not buy land in large enough quantities to make much difference. The Dawes Act became ever more difficult to undo. As the number of fractionated interests ballooned, so did the federal-Indian bureaucracy. The BIA had long been criticized for its shoddy management of Indian accounts, most famously in 1828, when federal agent Henry Schoolcraft wrote that it seemed the agency’s fiscal affairs “had been handled with a pitchfork.” Fractionation made more room for error. In the late 1980s, Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet rancher, tribal treasurer, and founder of the first tribally-owned bank, testified before Congress on flaws in the BIA’s accounting system. She had found many discrepancies in her work on the Blackfeet Reservation — leases never paid, documents lost — and suspected the problem was systemic. Indeed, in 1994, a banker appointed by then President Bill Clinton to investigate the Indian trust system found that out of the 238,000 accounts reviewed, half were missing important documentation, and nearly a quarter had no address; the account holders’ money had been sitting in the Treasury.

In 1996, Cobell sued the U.S. government on behalf of 450,000 plaintiffs from tribes across the country. She estimated that more than $170 billion had been lost or stolen from Indian accounts. When the case finally settled in 2009, it had gone to trial seven times. Since the settlement did not require a full accounting of missing or stolen monies, each plaintiff was awarded $1,000 to $2,000 — a small acknowledgement of their losses. It also set up a scholarship fund for Native American college students that would be bankrolled through the Buy-Back Program. But the land program itself received the bulk of the settlement money — $1.9 billion — to undo damages wrought by the Dawes Act. The settlement was hailed as a historic victory, and Cobell, who would die of cancer two years later, its hero. President Barack Obama called it “an important step towards a sincere reconciliation.” In an essay distributed widely by High Country News and still often cited, Chuck Sams of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation wrote, “Though it is true we were dealt a poor hand by history, we can make a new start. ... We will begin to make ourselves whole again.”

Elouise Cobell talks with Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar in December 2009, during a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on the settlement of the class-action lawsuit Cobell vs. Salazar.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Land Buy-Back Program differs from past efforts to undo fractionation in two fundamental ways: First, there has never been an attempt to transfer so much land to tribes all at once; and, second, there has never been so much money available to do so. In 2011, Interior Department officials met with tribal leaders and, the next year, released a plan: The BIA would give each participating tribe a sum scaled to the size of its fractionation problem. The Blackfeet Indian Reservation — by some measures the third most-fractionated in the country — was slated to be among the first beneficiaries, but a brief collapse in tribal government put the program on hold. Instead, the first buy-back offers went to landowners on Pine Ridge, on Dec. 18, 2013.

I visited Pine Ridge Agency the following August, as the Oglala Sioux Tribe was closing a third round of land purchases. The buy-back office was a doublewide trailer in the yard of the BIA building. A secretary motioned me into a back room, where a wiry, jocular man in pleated pants and tennis shoes sat with a stack of paperwork. Steve Her Many Horses was the fourth person appointed to direct the program in six months. He held up a reservation map: Tracts in which the tribe owned a majority interest prior to the buy-back program were colored dark blue; tracts in which the tribe had newly acquired a majority interest were light blue. The latter represented 200,000 acres, roughly a tenth of the reservation’s fractionated land, leveraged with $76 million of the tribe’s $105 million allocation. “Our main goal is to see this full map blue,” he said. “Then our tribe will have control of our land.”

The benefits were numerous, Her Many Horses told me. The tribe would earn more lease income and could use it to purchase reservation land from non-Indians. On land where it had acquired a majority interest, it could also build housing for tribal members. More importantly, the purchase had ensured that land returned to the tribe would never again be sold to non-Indians.

He spoke in terse, excited phrases, like a salesman still honing his pitch. And so when I asked, finally, if he would sell his own land to the tribe, I was surprised by his reply.

“Oh, no,” he said.

“No?”

“Well, it’d be something to think about.”

I heard the same answer dozens of times in the weeks I spent on Pine Ridge. It was difficult to find anyone who had sold their own land or, at least, who would admit to having done so. When I mentioned this a few mornings later to Denise Mesteth, the director of the tribe’s land department, she took me on a tour of her office:

“Hey, Burton, did you get an offer?”

“No, I don’t have land. Try Grace.”

“Grace, did you sell your allotment?” Grace averted her eyes. “Just checking. Bud? No? You know who did?”

“Not me.”

At last, we came to a cluttered, sweltering room, where a lean man named Carl Eagle Elk was studying a map. “I had no intention of selling,” he said. “My dad, my grandfather — they all told me, growing up, ‘Don’t sell your land.’ ” When the offer came in the mail, he left it in the backseat of his Chevy Impala. But as winter wore on, Eagle Elk, who lived with his brother, ran low on propane. “I slipped into debt,” he said. “You have your car, your insurance, your utilities. My son was in school, so you have school clothes. Then you drive a ways to get groceries.” (Most reservation residents shop in Rapid City, 90 miles away.) On July 21, 2014, just before his offer expired, Eagle Elk went to the buy-back office and sold half his interest — the equivalent of 20 acres, for $14,000. When the check came, he would pay off his debts and buy a trailer.

I eventually met others like Eagle Elk who had sold their land, though reluctantly. There are good reasons to sell: Many landowners no longer live on the reservations where their interest is, or they have inherited interest in places where they lack tribal affiliation. Or their interest is so small that they’ll never have access to the land. A house or trailer may indeed be a better investment, as may a car, since reservation services are often few and far between. But I also sensed that people were ashamed of the transactions. “It comes from the fact that our people died for that land, so it’s not a commodity that you can just sell and get money and be on your way,” Mario Gonzalez, an attorney and member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, later told me. Gonzalez is known for having advised the Sioux to refuse federal payment for the sacred Black Hills, taken from them in 1874. “I’m not selling my tracts, because they belonged to my great-grandmother,” he said. “They have value to me, just like an heirloom.” I had to understand that people were coming to their decision from a place of deep loss. Even though the land would return to the tribe, and even if the sale benefited the seller, the act of selling was weighted with painful memory.

I was reminded of something an elder told me when I had asked why he refused to sell: “When you have land, you can always come home. Nobody can’t ever tell you, ‘You have to go. This don’t belong to you.’ ”

 

Sitting in his mother’s kitchen in Browning, Montana, Cowboy After Buffalo studies papers related to his family’s land on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Terray Sylvester

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in December 2012, Teresa Voice of Crow Creek shows the $1,000 check she received as part of the Cobell settlement’s $1.5 billion in direct payments. Another $1.9 billion was slated for the Land-Buy Back program.
Benjamin Brayfield/Rapid City Journal

In September 2015, I arranged to meet Cowboy After Buffalo on a grassy ridge above his house. I drove a truck he had left for me at his corral, an old Ford with cracked mirrors and various CDs — Black Lodge Veteran Songs; The Rolling Stones — stuffed in its side compartments. He arrived after I did, on horseback, with his jeans tucked into his boots and a bandana tied around his forehead. Tall and heavy-set, he seemed always to be grinning. He had been out looking for a neighbor’s escaped calf and found it grazing amid a herd that belonged to a white rancher named Ron Jones. Near the end of his father’s life, Cowboy had begun subleasing the After Buffalo pasture to Jones, who lived south of the reservation. Cowboy could not afford the $2,400 yearly payment, let alone his own cows, and, anyway, he liked Jones. Subleasing to him allowed Cowboy some control: He could still do the work of a rancher while he gathered the resources that would allow him, eventually, to acquire cattle.  

Around reservations like Blackfeet, where ranching is the dominant industry, this sort of mutualism is common between Indian and non-Indian communities. Many Indian landowners who hold leases for their fractionated allotments sublease them to other ranchers because they don’t have enough livestock to fill range units themselves. (Edward After Buffalo owned 45 of the 160 cows he ran on two units.) Many reservations have good pasture, which is expensive and hard to come by elsewhere. “It’s kind of known that you can always find it there,” a white rancher, who subleases Blackfeet pasture, told me. “If you’re in a pickle, that’s where you call.”

These arrangements are controversial, and some tribes have passed resolutions discouraging Indian landowners from “fronting” for outside ranchers. On the Blackfeet Reservation, anyone who leases a range unit must own a certain percentage of the livestock that graze it. Cowboy had 12 horses, enough to meet the requirement, but without cows, his claim felt precarious; he worried that the tribe’s allocation committee, which largely controls grazing assignments, might give his to a bigger Indian rancher. So in 2013, he applied to the Farm Service Agency for a $35,000 loan to buy his own small herd.

While he waited, he decided to install a hydrant by the corral for watering livestock. He needed approval from others who shared in his allotment, but when he asked at the BIA office for a list of the 131 landowners, he was turned away. “As soon as I’d ask for maps, details, names, they’d question me like I was bringing a bomb in,” he recalled. When he finally obtained the document, he wrote the largest shares in neat rows and added them up. With his father’s gift, he owned a 2 percent interest. If he could get approval from his mother, who had 39 percent, as well as from several cousins, he would need less than 1 percent more. But most of the remaining landowners held less than a tenth of 1 percent interest. Some lived far away, in Florida or Oregon; others, he noticed, were in prison. He contacted a woman who owned 1.357 percent. She lived in Harrah, Washington, but planned to return to the reservation in summertime. She could meet him then, she said. But just before her trip, she died. Cowboy gave up, and the project fell through.

He began to worry that his loan would be denied because the land was so fractionated, and his access to it was limited. So on the day a loan officer arrived to inspect the property and fences, Cowboy assembled his brother, sisters and mother in his living room. “I wanted to show the officer that I was serious,” he said — and that his family supported his plans. The meeting later paid off. Cowboy learned that if a majority of landowners agreed, he could pull the 320-acre allotment in which he held interest out of the range unit. That way, he would reduce his risk of losing the land to another rancher and have more time to buy cattle. His mother agreed, and Cowboy began knocking on doors. In three days, he had acquired signatures from 53 percent of interest holders. It was a small victory, and it softened the news when his loan officer told him that he did not have enough cash flow to qualify for the loan. “He told me, ‘Keep trying,’ ” Cowboy recalled, “and I said, ‘I will keep trying.’ ”

I asked Cowboy if all these difficulties made selling his land interest through the Land Buy-Back Program seem more appealing. “No,” he said, though the program might work in his favor in other ways. If the tribal government gains interest in his allotment, he explained, he might be able to acquire more for himself by trading the tribe smaller interests he holds elsewhere on the reservation. I followed Cowboy down the ridge to his house, where his wife, Angie, was fixing hamburger and mashed potatoes for dinner. On the table sat a stack of folders and ledger books containing lease documents dating back to the ’60s. Among them were records from the 1990s, when another rancher outbid Cowboy’s father for the range unit containing the ranch. The After Buffalos had to go to court to regain access. The records seemed remarkable not only for how well they had been preserved, but also for what they implied: The odds against Native Americans keeping their land have been high for a long time. It is no wonder that so many still believe it is worth their struggle to hold onto it.

Edward After Buffalo III., right, plays with his cousin, Jeff Skunk Cap, on his family’s land on the Blackfeet Reservation of northern Montana.
Terray Sylvester

In June 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held a fairness hearing on the Cobell settlement, the last opportunity for plaintiffs to object. Landowners from tribes across the country spoke, and opinions varied, but most agreed that they would not sell their land. “You don’t have enough money to buy my piece of sovereignty,” a Choctaw man challenged. “These lands are precious. They hold the bones of my people,” said a woman from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. In the end, just 92 plaintiffs filed formal objections, and 1,800 opted out of the $1,000 payment. But the hearing foreshadowed a wider discontent: As of November 2015, fewer than half of the landowners who received buy-back offers had accepted them. On some reservations, such as Pine Ridge, the number is even lower.

At the end of 2016, the program will finally reach the Blackfeet Reservation, making it one of the last highly fractionated reservations to participate.* It is fitting, perhaps, that the place where the Cobell case began could be the place where it ends, but it is also a reminder of the lawsuit’s disappointments — of the distance between the injustices brought to light by the case and the justice now being delivered. The buy-back program does little to close this gap. Despite an investment of $715 million and the transfer of an equivalent of 1.5 million acres from individual to tribal ownership, the number of fractionated interests on participating reservations has declined by just 20 percent. Since Indian land will continue to fractionate at an exponential rate, it is easy to see the buy-back program as little more than a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

The low participation rate also has a darker implication — that many of those who did sell had little other choice. Federal officials often emphasize that the program is “voluntary,” but since many tribal members depend on their governments for financial help with even day-to-day expenses, the concept seems slippery. “Offering poor people something that is more than they have ever had but is not really what the case is worth is an old ploy of lawyers and the government,” Joe McKay, a Blackfeet tribal councilman and vocal critic of the Cobell settlement, told me. On Pine Ridge, I had observed tribal members ask their councilmen for help with hospital and propane bills, and once saw a councilman pay someone from his own pocket. The Blackfeet Tribe was in a similar circumstance. When I visited its offices in September, signs reading “No Hardship” were tacked throughout the corridors. And yet, every day, I watched men, women and children wander in, looking for councilmen to hear their pleas.

Phillip Many Hides finishes his lunch in a cafe in Browning, Montana. Many Hides intends to sell his interest in some parcels when the Buy-Back Program comes to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. He plans to use the money to buy a house.
Terray Sylvester

One afternoon, as I waited under a nearby pavilion, a man named Phillip Many Hides sat down beside me. He wore coke-bottle glasses, taped at the corners, and jeans, clean but frayed. He was looking for McKay, whom he hoped could help him apply for tribal assistance — a monthly $250 payment. Many Hides had long worked as a wildland firefighter and dispatcher, but his wife died in 2011, and he started drinking. When I met him, he had been sober 15 days. Still, he was homeless, sleeping by the powwow grounds. A spider bite on his ring finger had swollen to the size of a quarter.

I asked Many Hides if he planned to sell land when his buy-back offer finally came. He looked disappointed; he had assumed the offer would come sooner. “A lot of us are counting on that buy-back, so we can get our own homes,” he said. Some of his land he would never sell — it had spiritual significance — but he also owned interest in a hayfield north of Browning. “I hate to let it go,” he said, “but that’s the situation I’m in.” Already, the year before, he had sold some interest he inherited on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho. He spent the $1,600 he received on Christmas gifts for his children. “They were upset at first, but then my daughter said, ‘At least it was for Christmas.’ ” The buy-back program was a blessing, Many Hides told me, and he thanked Elouise Cobell: “I remember when she first started to fight this fight. I thought, could she do it? And I remember the day she won. We were all giving each other hugs.”

Cobell did not attend the 2011 fairness hearing. Bedridden with cancer, she called from Montana to make her final statement. “Few, if any, legal cases in modern times have embodied the pain of so many people in Indian Country, and also embodied the hopes of those people,” she said. “What has been accomplished here is historical. … It brings a measure of justice to some of the most vulnerable people in this country. The settlement is not perfect. I do not think it compensates for all of the losses sustained, but I do think it is fair. … I am convinced that it is the best settlement possible.” Four months later, she died.

Cobell’s friends and colleagues have since told me that even she had been deeply ambivalent. Cobell was grateful that the case had ended, and she approved of the college scholarship fund. But behind closed doors, she opposed the buy-back program. She feared it would thicken the bureaucracy that already mired Indian land ownership. She worried, too, that landowners in dire straits would sell their only financial leverage, since many depend on lease income and even take out loans on it to buy everyday necessities like groceries and school clothes. Most of all, she opposed the program because it seemed to assume that what is best for tribal governments is best for individual Indians — that their interests, after more than a century of federal policy intended to break apart tribal communities, were still one and the same. Many tribal members, in fact, have come to distrust their tribal governments.

“We would have argued that it’s better to help owners acquire bigger interests, not do a program that converted those interests from individual to tribal ownership,” Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and a descendent of the Oglala Lakota, told me. Stainbrook worked closely with Cobell throughout the case. “The lawsuit was nothing about tribes,” he said. “It was about individuals. And the way the buy-back program was structured, the tribes came away with a gift.”

The program, Stainbrook added, was the government’s piece of the deal. “They say they did this to ‘make the community whole again,’ but that’s secondary. They wanted it because they spend millions of dollars a year sending lease checks for amounts smaller than the cost of a stamp. Reduce fractionation, and they reduce the administrative burden.”

The case did achieve some substantial victories. In 2009, for example, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appointed five tribal leaders to a Committee on Indian Trust Administration and Reform, and in 2014, the committee released an analysis of the trust relationship. The report does not go so far as to suggest transferring the management of trust accounts to a third party, such as a bank, as Cobell would have wanted, but it does call for a seismic restructuring of the trust system. Among its recommendations is the establishment of an Indian Trust Administration Commission, which would consolidate the Department of Interior’s trust functions under a single entity and make it easier for tribes and individuals to navigate the bureaucracy.

Even the buy-back program has had positive effects, in that it has encouraged Indian landowners to learn more about their fractionated interests. Stainbrook, through the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, has worked with federal officials, tribes and other organizations to distribute educational materials about the program, estate planning, and the alternatives to selling land, so that landowners can make informed choices. On the Blackfeet Reservation, the people I spoke to seemed more prepared than those I met on Pine Ridge: With the benefit of time, perhaps, more of them knew where their land was and how much income they earned from it. Mark Magee, the director of the land office and a relative of Cobell’s, told me he was glad the Blackfeet would be among the program’s last recipients: “We get to see everyone else’s mistakes. We want to make sure we’re doing it right.”

Trust reforms are as uncertain as any in the past, though, and most people see Cobell’s legacy as something more intangible. “She used to tell me, ‘Winning money wasn’t the thing,’ ” said Angie Main, Cobell’s friend and colleague, when I visited her in Browning. “Indians winning a case against the federal government — that’s the point.” Later, Elouise’s sister-in-law, Eva Cobell, showed me a box of papers she had saved to make a scrapbook for Elouise’s son. It mostly contained condolence notes sent upon Elouise’s death, but at the bottom I found letters addressed to Elouise from students at the local high school:

My name is L. My mom is J. I don’t know who my dad is and really don’t care. What you’re doing means a lot to me and a lot of other people. What you’re doing means to me that there is hope. People from the reservation can be something.

Cowboy After Buffalo, center, stands with Ron Jones, right, and members of their families while gathering Jones’ cattle from the After Buffalos’ land last fall. Jones lives south of the reservation in Dupuyer, Montana, and like many non-Indian ranchers in the area, he grazes cattle on reservation land he subleases during the summer.
Terray Sylvester
 

On a cold morning in October, I dropped by the After Buffalo ranch once more. Cowboy was in the corral with his sons and Ron Jones, who had come to gather the calves. The cows lowed mournfully as Cowboy flapped his arms like wings, driving the calves up a ramp and into a trailer. Jones seemed pleased, and once the calves were loaded, he did not linger. The two men laughed and shook hands. The heifer calves already had a buyer; Jones would take the steer calves to auction. The next week, he would return for the cows and bring them to his own property to overwinter. Then, the pastures would be mostly empty until spring.

In the meantime, Cowboy had enrolled in a course to receive a commercial driver’s license. Roads were being redone throughout the reservation, and he hoped to find work hauling gravel. This would increase his cash flow; he could reapply for a loan. Cowboy was good-natured about his ordeal. He wasn’t angry with the BIA for losing his father’s will. “We can’t look at yesterday, because we’ll go backwards, and I’m trying to go forward,” he said. He faulted himself for not trying sooner; if he hadn’t been drinking or running drugs, he might have had his own herd by now. He shook his head: “To think of all the money I took, of all the victims I made.”

The wind blew so hard that aspen leaves cut wildly in the air. I followed Cowboy’s son, Andrew, to a creek that crosses the property. He showed me the bank where the family erects a tipi in summertime and the pools where they fish and swim. Above us was the ridge where I had met Cowboy weeks before. There, in a grove of pines, I had found a cemetery. The graves were sunken into the earth like deer had come to sleep. Some were marked by fenceposts lashed into crosses with wire, and others were not marked at all. This was fractionation in visual form: A gathering of generations; the faint outlines where bodies once lay; a claim to the land, grounded in something spiritual.  

Cowboy After Buffalo’s daughter, Bethany, visits the grave of her grandfather on a hill overlooking their family’s land on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northern Montana.
Terray Sylvester

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is a freelance journalist based in California. She is at work on her first book.

Reporting for this story was supported by a UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship.

This coverage is also supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.

*The Land Buy-Back Program officially ends in 2022. Until then, whatever money is not spent on the first 42 participating reservations, which contain nearly 90 percent of fractionated interests, will be made available for land consolidation in other locations, which the Department of Interior will announce later this year.