MISSOULA, Mont. - There's a new pledge from the Federal Government to tribes around the country. The issue -- an almost $2 billion land buy-back program, which is part of the historic Cobell settlement over the misuse of tribal royalties.
The program is slow to start; some worry it will run out before the land is bought back, and that's why the Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell visited Montana on Wednesday.
"I'm honored that she took the time to come down and visit and listen to our concerns, and she is optimistic about getting it and so am I," said Tribe Chairman Ronald Trahan.
NBC Montana has been tracking problems with the program. In April, Rep. Steve Daines held a subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., to find out why the program is behind schedule and surrounded by uncertainty.
"Hopefully we can fast-track it a little be bit more. They look at what we actually can do and how we've been doing this for years before this Cobell or buy-back. I mean, we've been buying back fractionated property since ‘35 right here, ourselves. So we know how to get it done, but it's just been frustrating for us to have to jump through all the federal hoops," said Trahan.
"One of the models in this country of strong tribal government, strong tribal leadership and really being a pioneer in many, many ways," said Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell.
The problem boils down to multiple owners of individual land. It's called fractionated lands, passed down sometimes with no will, divided by heirs. That means several people can own one piece of land.
The buy-back program has a 10-year shelf life.
"It is about buying those fractions of lands from those individual landowners, so that it is a workable piece of land that can be taken into the trust by the tribes and used by the tribe for whatever the tribe wants those lands used for," said Jewell.
This week's visit is designed to show the government's commitment to starting and finishing the buy-back program.