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Wind River Landowners To Recieve Cobell Buy-Back Offers

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Some landowners on the Wind River Reservation will soon receive offers through the Department of the Interior's Land Buy-Back Program. Representatives from the program held an "early-bird" informational session in Fort Washakie this week, where landowners learned about registering as willing sellers.

The Land Buy-Back Program was borne out of Cobell v. Salazar, a class-action lawsuit first brought against the Department of the Interior and the Department of Treasury in 1996 for mismanagement of tribal trust land and funds. As part of a 2009 settlement of that lawsuit, the federal government agreed to spend $1.9 billion buying willing landowners out of their fractionalized interests in land allotments on Indian Reservations, and placing that land back into federal trust to be managed by tribes.

Lynnette Greybull, who heads up the Northern Arapaho Tribe's Land Buy-Back outreach team, said fractionalization on reservations like Wind River stems from failed government efforts to assimilate tribal people by dividing communal land into privately owned allotments.

"The problem is once we have a landowner, and then [the landowner] passes away, it gets passed down to the heirs and keeps fractionalizing and fractionalizing," Greybull said. "So we'll have one landowner from 1930 or 1940, and here we are in 2019 and there's 50 landowners or sometimes even thousands."

And if any one of those 50 plus owners wants to develop the land, they need to round up signatures from more than half of the allotment's other owners.

"I know cases like that within my own family. My cousin was trying to put a trailer on a piece of family land, and she had to get 150 signatures. And it took her over a year to get those signatures so she could have a place to live," Greybull said.

Once the landowners are bought out and the consolidated land is returned to tribal control, Greybull said the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes have plans to build housing and tribal government offices on it. They are looking at other economic development opportunities.

According to federal representatives at Wednesday's informational session, the program will spend the coming months working in coordination with the tribes to identify land they would like to acquire, and begin mailing offer letters to landowners by late spring or summer of 2020.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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