BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Leaders of two Montana Indian reservations finalized agreements with the federal government Thursday under a program to buy and consolidate Native American property now split between numerous owners, so tribes can put it to more productive use.
The cooperative agreements were announced by the U.S. Department of Interior, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
They mark the second and third deals to be reached under a 10-year, $1.9 billion initiative that emerged from a legal settlement over the government's long history of mismanaging Indian trust royalties.
The tribes will be provided federal resources for outreach and to solicit interest from landowners who are willing to sell property to the government for transfer to the tribe. The aim is to consolidate land held by numerous "fractional" owners so tribal governments can manage the land to benefit their members.
On the Salish and Kootenai's Flathead Reservation, tribal leaders plan to buy more than 38,000 acres of trust land, Chairman Ronald Trahan said.
"Trust land that is heavily fractionated or split up into very small parcels with multiple owners, more often than not, sits idle and produces nothing for its owners," Trahan said in a statement.
Tribal officials said in some cases property that is bought could be leased back out for home sites, agricultural uses or for commercial purposes. For agricultural land, they said 100 percent ownership would allow for improved management. Other purchased properties could be set aside for cultural preservation.
Northern Cheyenne President Llevando Fisher said the program offers a chance to acquire property that will preserve the tribe's homeland for future generations. Federal officials already have completed mineral analyses of land parcels on the southeastern Montana tribe's reservation.
Across the U.S., the Interior Department holds about 56 million acres in trust for Indians in more than 200,000 tracts.
Land fractionation was caused by the 1887 Dawes Act, which split tribal lands into individual allotments of 80- to 160-acre parcels, in most cases. Those allotments were inherited by multiple heirs with each passing generation, and there are now more than 94,000 land tracts with a combined 2.9 million ownership interests.
That includes more than 21,000 tracks with 100 or more owners each.
Tribes interested in cooperative agreements with federal officials have until March 14 to submit letters of interest or cooperative agreement applications for participation in the program.