WASHINGTON (AP) — Native American tribes don't have to reimburse the government for buying divided-up tribal land so it can be returned to them, the Department of Interior said Friday.

The agency has been working with tribes to reunite land that had been divided among multiple owners over many generations. A record $3.4 billion lawsuit settlement approved last year over federal mismanagement of Indian land royalties included $1.9 billion for purchases of the divided-up land. The lawsuit was filed by Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Tribe member from Browning, Mont., who died last year.

David Hayes, Interior's deputy secretary, said in a letter responding to Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., that land purchases made with the money set aside in the settlement are not subject to liens.

"None of the express purposes of the ($1.9 billion) allow for the imposition of liens on tribes to repay the value of lands acquired" by the government to return to tribes, Hayes stated.Cole said in a statement, "This is excellent news for Indian Country. "

"The Cobell settlement was reached to compensate tribal members for decades of mismanagement," Cole said. Applying liens "would be tantamount to requiring tribes to fund the United States government's obligation under the settlement," he said.

Under a 1983 law, liens could be placed against the land purchased by the government, and tribes would repay the purchase cost with money earned from the land. The money then went toward buying other divided tribal land.

John Dossett, general counsel for National Congress of American Indians, said the divided-up land is costly for the federal government to administer. He said his organization and many tribes are glad liens won't be applied.

Any money the tribes earn from the land, from grazing or timber sales, for instance, will now go to the tribe that owns the parcel, Interior said.

The divisions of tribal lands began under the 1887 Dawes Act, which split reservations into individual allotments that were passed on to multiple heirs with each passing generation.

The law's aim was to "assimilate" tribal members into the rest of society and eliminate tribes. Some land now has anywhere from dozens to more than 1,000 individual owners. The Interior Department has identified 88,638 land tracts owned by nearly 2.8 million people. The divided-up land is also known as "fractionated" land.

The federal government wants to reduce the numbers of land tracts and owners over the next decade. The plan is to buy tracts with the most individual owners, finding landowners willing to sell and targeting land that can be bought with little preparatory work and where controlling interest can be gained.

Tribes had asked for liens to be waived.

The $1.9 billion from the lawsuit settlement is a one-time expenditure that must be spent within 10 years. Any money not spent in 10 years will be returned to the U.S. Treasury.


Department of Interior: http://www.doi.gov/index.cfm


Associated Press Writer Matt Volz in Helena, Mont., contributed to this report.