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Fond du Lac land buy-back program nears end

Hundreds of Fond du Lac tribal members who own portions of land inside the reservation have only a few weeks left to participate in a federal buy-back program aimed at consolidating reservation land in the hands of tribal government. The program,...

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Hundreds of Fond du Lac tribal members who own portions of land inside the reservation have only a few weeks left to participate in a federal buy-back program aimed at consolidating reservation land in the hands of tribal government.

The program, which started last year, is wrapping up in October, said Patti DuFault, coordinator of the buy-back effort for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The Fond du Lac band had $3.8 million available for the program that is trying to reach out to about 3,200 different owners of small shares of land totaling about 8,000 acres.

Of the 100,000 total acres within the boundary of the Fond du Lac Reservation in Carlton and St. Louis counties, more than 36,000 are owned by or controlled by the tribe. But that includes the 8,000 acres owned by tribal members or their heirs that technically are private property.

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The parcels are each owned by multiple people as a result of so-called fractionation, where divided ownership of reservation land is the result of land parcels passing down to numerous heirs over generations.

At Fond du Lac, after dividing over generations, a single parcel can have as many as 1,800 owners.

So far Fond du Lac has been able to consolidate 3,319 of the 8,000 available acres for purchase, DuFault told the News Tribune. "We are happy with the success of the program, but realize that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to reduce fractionation and bring the reservation back to its original state."

Fractionation of reservation land stems primarily from the General Allotment Act of 1887 that allotted land to individual tribal members, often in 80- or 160-acre parcels. The lands have been handed down to heirs over successive generations, causing the number of shared interests in one parcel to grow exponentially with each generation.

At the start of the program, there were about 150 reservations nationwide with 93,000 parcels of land and 2.9 million purchasable fractional interests owned by nearly 245,000 individuals. Many of the tracts have more owners than acres.

The buy-back money comes from the Cobell settlement, a $3.4 billion class-action lawsuit against the government filed by Montana's Elouise Cobell in 1996 alleging mismanagement of royalties owed to Native Americans since the late 1800s. The settlement was approved by Congress in 2010.

Like Fond du Lac, reservation governments across the country are trying to rebuild ownership of land within their boundaries.

The goal is to "increase tribal sovereignty to make the reservation whole again,'' DuFault noted. "By increasing the ownership interests held by the band we will be better able to preserve our cultural resources and explore new opportunities to support our community members."

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According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Minnesota's six Chippewa bands have been eligible for about $20 million to track down willing sellers for 979 tracts totaling more than 60,000 acres. But those 979 tracts have 71,000 different heirs, and just trying to find the people has been a monumental task.

For more information, call the Fond du Lac tribal buy-back staff at (218) 878-7361. For more information go to fdlrez.com/landbuyback .

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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