WASHINGTON — American Indian tribes don't have to reimburse the government for buying divided-up tribal land so it can be returned to them, the Department of Interior said Friday.
The agency has been working with tribes to reunite land that had been divided among multiple owners over many generations. A record $3.4 billion lawsuit settlement approved last year over federal mismanagement of Indian land royalties included $1.9 billion for purchases of the divided-up land. The lawsuit was filed by Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Tribe member from Browning, Mont., who died last year.
David Hayes, Interior's deputy secretary, said in a letter to Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, that purchases made with the money set aside in the settlement are not subject to liens.
“None of the express purposes of the ($1.9 billion) allow for the imposition of liens on tribes to repay the value of lands,” Hayes stated.
“The Cobell settlement was reached to compensate tribal members for decades of mismanagement,” Cole said. Applying liens “would be tantamount to requiring tribes to fund the United States government's obligation under the settlement.”
Under a 1983 law, liens could be placed against land purchased by the government, and tribes would repay the purchase cost with money earned from the land. The money then went toward buying other divided tribal land.
The Cobell settlement was reached to compensate tribal members for decades of mismanagement.”
Rep. Tom Cole