Tribal lands, tribal self-governance


Sierra Crane-Murdoch’s beautifully illustrated feature exposes several inherent tensions in federal efforts to purchase and return lands that were stolen from tribes a century ago and given to individuals (“A Land Divided,” HCN, 4/4/16). But the tone of the article is hostile toward a program that is successfully addressing a serious historical injustice and a modern calamity. President Obama’s Interior Department started the Land Buy-Back Program, with the blessing of Elouise Cobell, to address a problem that was more than a century in the making — the problem of millions of tiny fractionated interests in land owned by hundreds of thousands of people. The program allows Indian people to sell their fractional interests in land for fair market value to the federal government so that these interests can be consolidated and returned to the tribes from whom the land was originally stolen.

The program gives each fractional Indian landowner a choice: They can either stay with the flawed system that the article documents well, or sell their fractional interests to help remedy a historical injustice and increase tribal self-governance. While the choice is not simple, it is the worst kind of 20th century paternalism to suggest that Indian people should be denied the opportunity to choose simply because they are poor. Moreover, a decision to sell will often benefit the sellers in more ways than just the sales price. The Obama administration has made a considered judgment that Indian people will be better served by empowering their own governments. Tribal leaders (who are elected by Indian people) are necessarily more accountable, and therefore more responsive, to Indian people than federal employees ever will be. The Land Buy-Back Program returns tribal lands to tribes and furthers tribal self-governance.

Kevin K. Washburn
Albuquerque, New Mexico

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