Washburn advocates for land buy-back program in "High Country News"

May 6, 2016

Professor Reed Benson
Professor Kevin Washburn

In High Country News, Professor Kevin Washburn defends the Land Buy-Back Program.

The magazine had exposed “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).”

In evaluating the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations, run by the Department of the Interior, Washburn argued that the “program that is successfully addressing a serious historical injustice and a modern calamity.”

The problem, Washburn wrote, was “more than a century in the making,” and involves “millions of tiny fractionated interests in land owned by hundreds of thousands of people.”  Today, the federal government must manage each of those interests and it is difficult to manage them well because some of the numerous individual owners often cannot be found.

Washburn described the Land Buy-Back Program as follows: “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: either stay with the flawed system that the article documents well, or sell their fractional interest to help remedy a historical injustice and increase tribal self-governance.”

According to Washburn, 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.”

He concludes that, “The Land Buy-Back Program returns tribal lands to tribes and furthers tribal self-governance.”

Professor Washburn helped start the Land Buy-Back Program during his time as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at Interior.  During his time at Interior, the Department spent more than $700 million repurchasing the equivalent of approximately 1.5 million acres of land in small fractional interests and restored that land to tribes. The program is working to address the tragic effects of the century-old allotment policy in which tribes lost more than 90 million acres.  It has been working with more than 40 tribes to address the problem.

Washburn’s letter was highlighted on Indianz.Com in “Kevin Washburn: Land buy-back program benefits Indian Country.”