Flathead Reservation in next phase of $1.9B land buy-back program


Elouise Cobell, right, looks on as Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes testifies in December 2009 during a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. EVAN VUCCI/Associated Press
Elouise Cobell, right, looks on as Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes testifies in December 2009 during a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, D.C.
EVAN VUCCI/Associated Press

HELENA – The Flathead Reservation is among 21 Indian reservations that will be the focus of the next phase of a $1.9 billion program to buy fractionated land parcels owned by multiple individuals and turn them over to tribal governments, Interior Department officials said Thursday.

Besides the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, other Montana participants are the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation; Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation; Crow Tribe; and the Fort Belknap Indian Community of the Fort Belknap Reservation of Montana.

Government officials will work with tribal leaders to plan, map, conduct mineral evaluations, make appraisals and acquire land on the reservations from Washington state to Oklahoma in this phase, which is expected to last through 2015.

Other reservations could be added to the list, but the 21 named Thursday meet the criteria, particularly tribal readiness, said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn.

“We knew it wouldn’t be successful unless tribal leaders were interested in the program,” Washburn said.

The land buyback program is part of a $3.4 billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed by Elouise Cobell of Browning, who died in 2011. The lawsuit claimed Interior Department officials mismanaged trust money held by the government for hundreds of thousands of Indian landowners.

The 1887 Dawes Act split tribal lands into individual allotments that were inherited by multiple heirs with each passing generation, resulting in some parcels across the nation being owned by dozens, hundreds or even thousands of individual Indians.

Often, that land sits without being developed or leased because approval is required from all the owners.

The land buyback program aims to consolidate as many parcels as possible by spending $1.9 billion by a 2022 deadline to purchase land from willing owners, then turn over that purchased land to the tribes to do as they see fit.

So far, the program has spent $61.2 million and restored 175,000 acres, said Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor. To buy even that much land, officials had to locate and contact owners in all 50 states and several countries to find out if they were willing to sell, Connor said.

The work primarily has been focused on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation until now.

Last month, tribal leaders from four reservations criticized the buyback program’s slow pace and complained they were being shut out of decisions over what land to buy. The leaders from tribes in Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington state spoke before a U.S. House panel.

Rep. Steve Daines, R-Montana, who called for the congressional hearing, said he welcomed Thursday’s announcement by the Interior Department.

“However, I am concerned their efforts here may not provide tribes with the necessary tools to ensure the Land Buy-Back program is properly implemented,” Daines said in a statement.

He said the Interior Department should use its authority to give tribes more flexibility, and it should move swiftly to address consolidation problems on other reservations not included in the announcement.

Washburn said Thursday that his agency has entered into or is negotiating cooperative agreements with many tribes in the buyback program, though others say they want the federal government to run the program.

21 reservations next up in consolidation program

These are the American Indian reservations the Department of Interior plans to focus on in the next phase of a $1.9 billion buyback program of fractionated land parcels to turn over to tribal governments. The program is part of a $3.4 billion settlement over mismanaged money held in trust by the U.S. government for individual Indian landowners.

– Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Montana.

– Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of the Cheyenne River Reservation, Wyoming.

– Coeur D’Alene Tribe of the Coeur D’Alene Reservation, Idaho.

– Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Montana.

– Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, Oregon.

– Crow Tribe, Montana.

– Fort Belknap Indian Community of the Fort Belknap Reservation of Montana.

– Gila River Indian Community of the Gila River Indian Reservation, Arizona.

– Lummi Tribe of the Lummi Reservation, Washington.

– Makah Indian Tribe of the Makah Indian Reservation, Washington.

– Navajo Nation, Arizona.

– Northern Cheyenne Tribe of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, Montana.

– Oglala Sioux Tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.

– Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Kansas.

– Quapaw Tribe of Indians, Oklahoma.

– Quinault Tribe of the Quinault Reservation, Washington.

– Rosebud Sioux Tribe of the Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota.

– Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation, North Dakota and South Dakota.

– Squaxin Island Tribe of the Squaxin Island Reservation, Washington.

– Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota and South Dakota.

– Swinomish Indians of the Swinomish Reservation, Washington.

CSKT to become first tribes to own a major hydroelectric facility

Brian Lipscomb, the CEO of Energy Keepers, announced this week that that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes would acquire Kerr Dam for $18.3 million – more than the $14.7 million the tribes wanted to pay, but more than $30 million less than what PPL Montana had sought (Photo by Tom Bauer/Missoulian).
Brian Lipscomb, the CEO of Energy Keepers, announced this week that that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes would acquire Kerr Dam for $18.3 million – more than the $14.7 million the tribes wanted to pay, but more than $30 million less than what PPL Montana had sought (Photo by Tom Bauer/Missoulian).


Vince Devlin, Buffalo Post

Almost 40 years after starting the process to acquire Kerr Dam, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have almost reached the finish line.

And they’ll get there for a price that is tens of millions of dollars closer to what the tribes said it was worth than what PPL Montana wanted for it, the Missoulian reports.

The Flathead Indian Reservation tribes will become the first in the nation to own a major hydroelectric facility when they turn over $18.3 million. That’s the price set by the American Arbitration Association after weighing arguments from CSKT, which maintained the price should be $14.7 million, and PPL Montana, which said it should be nearly $50 million.

Extensive hearings on the price were held in January.

“This is a historic day for the Confederated Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai Tribes,” CSKT Chairman Ron Trahan said. “We’ve been working toward this for 40 years. It brings tears to my eyes, because it’s something we never quit on.”

The earliest the transfer of ownership can take place is Sept. 5, 2015.

New owners will mean a new name for the dam according to Brian Lipscomb, CEO of Energy Keepers, a federally chartered corporation wholly owned by the tribes. Completed in 1938, the dam was named after Frank Kerr, president of Montana Power Company at the time.

“We’ve been titled as visionary people, and it plays out,” council member Lloyd Irvine said at a press conference announcing the price. Acquisition of the dam “is one of the tools that ensures the future of our people.”

But another council member, Terry Pitts, urged caution.

“We should not be blinded by the bling,” Pitts said. “There will be a lot of issues that come with this. We need to be fully prepared.”

17 more bison shipped to slaughter


Billings Gazette Feb 19, 2014  •  By Brett French

BRETT FRENCH/Gazette Staff Bison wander back toward Yellowstone National Park from outside the park’s northern border in the Gardiner Basin recently. The park continues to ship bison to slaughter to reduce the number of animals in the park.
BRETT FRENCH/Gazette Staff
Bison wander back toward Yellowstone National Park from outside the park’s northern border in the Gardiner Basin recently. The park continues to ship bison to slaughter to reduce the number of animals in the park.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes trucked 17 more Yellowstone National Park bison from the park’s Stephens Creek bison capture facility to a slaughter facility in Ronan on Wednesday.

The tribes pay a game warden to ride along with the shipment of animals to shoot them if there is an accident and the bison escape from the trailer, a requirement of the Montana Department of Livestock.

That requirement was unknown to the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, which had agreed to take any bison not wanted by Yellowstone treaty tribes. Initially, the DOL offered to provide one of its employees to ride along at a cost of $350 a trip. When the council balked at the cost, Yellowstone on Wednesday agreed to pay, said Christian Mackay, executive officer for the DOL.

“It’s not an insurmountable problem by any means,” Mackay said. “We have some loads scheduled this week to go out.”

Jim Stone, executive director of the buffalo council, said such “annoying” issues are roadblocks to fulfilling agreements under the Interagency Bison Management Plan and he called into question the DOL’s role in the process.

To date, tribal and state hunters have killed 162 bison, said Tom McDonald of the confederated tribes’ natural resources office. The Nez Perce, Shoshone-Bannock and Umatilla tribes are still conducting hunts. Montana-licensed hunters took 29 bison this season.

Last week, the confederated tribes transported another 20 bison from Yellowstone to slaughter and five were transferred to the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for research. According to a Park Service spokesman, about 70 to 75 bison are now in the Stephens Creek corral. The bison were not hazed into the facility. Another 50 to 70 bison have moved past the park’s northern boundary in the Gardiner Basin while about 400 have gathered in the park roughly between the towns of Gardiner and Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo.

Yellowstone officials want to remove 300 to 600 bison in consecutive years to reduce the size of the park’s herds to meet the terms of an agreement with the state of Montana. Bison advocacy groups have decried the move, saying a target population of 3,000 to 3,500 bison in the park is not based on the carrying capacity of the range. This summer the park’s bison herd was estimated at 4,600 animals.

Bison advocates would like to see the animals given more room to roam outside Yellowstone and a quarantine process enacted to transfer live animals to existing tribal bison herds. Those efforts have been fought by the livestock industry since many of the bison carry brucellosis, which can cause pregnant cattle to abort.

Defenders of Wildlife said 56,000 people had emailed Gov. Steve Bullock asking him to intervene and halt the slaughter.

McDonald said confederated tribes are taking bison to slaughter for hunters who were unsuccessful in filling their bison hunting tags. The hunters pay for the cost of shipping, slaughtering and butchering of the bison.

“When it’s all said and done, people love bison meat and are willing to pay a premium,” McDonald said. “Ninety-seven percent of the people who return to eating bison find it exceptional.”

He added that the hunts have been “self-esteem builders” for the parties of hunters that travel to Yellowstone’s borders.

“It’s almost a healing kind of thing,” McDonald said.

Revisiting racism


Ravalli comments leave tribal elders thinking of the past


 Missoula Independent

by Jessica Mayrer  December 5, 2013


 Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal elder Tony Incashola Sr. says that despite experiencing racism from the time he was a child growing up in the 1950s on the Flathead Indian Reservation, he couldn’t help feeling surprised by a Ravalli County official’s portrayal of American Indians during a public meeting last month as drunken lawbreakers.

“I guess I shouldn’t be,” Incashola, 67, says. “I’ve lived with that all of my life … When I was a kid, it was like standing at a department store on the outside looking in. You see the non-Indian children having fun. You felt like an outsider, that you weren’t welcome, because you didn’t dress right and you had a different color.”

Incashola, who serves as director of the Salish-Pend d’Orielle Culture Committee, has dedicated much of his life to fostering an understanding of indigenous ways. Education breeds familiarity, he says. Familiarity helps break down the fear that breeds racism. Efforts such as his are paying off. Incashola says that racism is less apparent than when he was young. That makes the Nov. 20 meeting in Ravalli County all the more troubling.

The meeting involved a discussion between CSKT delegates and the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners about how best to care for a historic Bitterroot Valley property known as Medicine Tree that the Salish have considered sacred for hundreds of years. CSKT wants to transfer the property from tribal ownership into federal trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. CSKT representatives stated that the 58-acre parcel is central to Salish creation stories, ones that detail how “Coyote,” a being imbued by the creator with special powers, made the land “safe for humans yet to come,” Incashola says.


When explaining the importance of such a transfer, the CSKT say that the Medicine Tree parcel provides a connection to indigenous history—a link that helps preserve a strong sense of tribal identity. The CSKT add that the transaction will help grow their land base and, therefore, give them a more powerful voice when negotiating their rights and responsibilities with government agencies.

CSKT attorney Teresa Wall-McDonald told the Independent that placing land into trust helps the tribes gain back losses accrued when the federal government opened the Flathead Reservation to non-native homesteaders in 1910. Between 2009 and August 2013 alone, the CSKT placed approximately 81,000 acres into trust.

“Part of the process of restoring our homeland includes restoring the land,” Wall-McDonald says. “It is part of rebuilding our homeland, what I call nation building.”

The Ravalli County Commission, however, has steadily opposed the CSKT’s request. Among the commissioners’ stated concerns is the loss of roughly $800 in property taxes that would result from the transfer. They also worry about the potential impacts of having a pocket of sovereign land set aside within their county, and why the tribes would want to work with the federal government rather than local. At the Nov. 20 meeting, they asked specifically if the tribes intended to erect a casino atop the parcel.

Later during the same meeting, Ravalli County Planning Board Chair Jan Wisniewski warned commissioners of the CSKT’s request, saying that American Indians have a history of using trust lands as a refuge to “get drunk and try and run back into the reservation so they don’t get caught,” according to meeting minutes.

“The county cannot go into that sovereign nation to apprehend the drunken Indians,” he said. “So the jails are full of Indians (sic) which cost us tax dollars. One jail in particular (Havre?) had a count of 58.”

In response to Wisniewski’s testimony and the behavior of the Ravalli County officials, Bitterrooter Pam Small posted an online petition demanding that the commission apologize for the county’s “cultural insensitivity and ignorance” that garnered nearly 500 signatures.

Such criticism helped persuade the commissioners on Nov. 27 to issue an apology to the tribes. Roughly 20 Bitterroot residents attended the meeting, with many of them verbally lashing out at the commissioners, characterizing the county’s overall treatment of the CSKT as “paternalistic” and akin to “an inquisition.”

“The whole tone of this meeting was confrontational,” former Ravalli County attorney George Corn said. “They were grilled by your attorneys … At best it was denigrating. At worst, it implied racism.”

In response to the onslaught, county commissioners say that the Nov. 20 discussion was taken out of context—that they were only attempting to evaluate all possible outcomes that could result from the transfer. “It was in no way condescending or adversarial,” Commissioner Jeff Burrows said last week, before the commission voted to hand-deliver an apology to the tribes.

Wisniewski’s legal advisor, Robert C. Myers, echoes the commissioners when maintaining that his client’s statements were taken out of context. “We don’t know yet fully what was actually said,” he says. “People hear what they think they hear.”

For Incashola, the issue comes back to education and respect. For instance, he says the thought of the tribes placing a casino on Medicine Tree is preposterous and reflects a misunderstanding of the importance the CSKT place on preserving their culture.

“I think the county commissioners don’t understand,” Incashola says.

The whole back and forth leaves him weary.

“I get so tired of trying to defend my identity, to try to defend my values,” he says. “I feel that what happened in Hamilton is just plain ignorant.”

Incashola says his elders, who faced the worst kind of racism, taught him that there are more good people in the world than bad. He takes some comfort in that thought. In light of what transpired in Ravalli County, however, Incashola isn’t confident that racism will ever completely disappear.


Montana tribes will be the first to own a hydroelectric dam


Kerr Dam in Montana
Kerr Dam in Montana


High Country News


Nov 25, 2013

by Sarah Jane Keller

Most of the people who run Kerr Dam on northwest Montana’s Flathead Reservation sit hundreds of miles away, and some are even across the country, in the offices of Pennsylvania Power and Light.

But that’s likely to change in 2015, when the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have the option to buy the dam, thereby becoming the country’s first tribal hydroelectric owners and operators. Rocky Mountain Power Company built the 205-foot-tall impoundment on the Flathead River, four miles downstream of Flathead Lake, against the will of many tribal members in 1938. Gaining control of Kerr Dam will have significant economic and cultural benefits for the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille – the three tribes of the Flathead Reservation.

It’s also given tribal member Daniel Howlett the chance to come home. When he left the Flathead Valley to study business and renewable energy management in Denver, he never expected to have a career on the reservation. Now, he’s a power-marketing coordinator for his tribe’s new energy company, which plans to offer 1.1 million megawatt hours of electricity from the dam annually, enough to power roughly 79,000 homes each year.

The Confederated Tribes already run the reservation’s utility company, have a top-notch natural resources department, and oversee the first tribally administered wilderness in the United States. Obtaining the dam will be another major step in self-determination, probably with impacts far beyond Montana.

Other tribes, such as the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon and the Seneca Nation in New York, are vying for full or majority ownership of hydroelectric dams on their land. They are keeping track of the Kerr Dam purchase, which will shape outside perceptions of tribal energy development. “I think a lot of eyes across the nation, and certainly Indian Country, will appreciate the milestone significance of this achievement,” says Pat Smith, a former attorney for the Salish and Kootenai.

Tribes in Western U.S. Use Water to Assert Sovereignty

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana stand to become the first tribes in the country to own a major hydroelectric dam. In Colorado, tribes are managing parts of hydro projects. All are examples of tribes regaining control of resources on their land. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

Credit Marci KrivonenThe Kerr Dam in Northwest Montana was built in the 1930's on the Flathead Indian Reservation. It's been owned by non-tribal companies since it was built.
Credit Marci Krivonen
The Kerr Dam in Northwest Montana was built in the 1930’s on the Flathead Indian Reservation. It’s been owned by non-tribal companies since it was built.


July 15, 2013

Aspen Public Radio

In Colorado’s southwest, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe co-manages part of the Dolores Water Project. And, near Durango, the Animas/La Plata project is partially managed by the state’s two tribes. Ernest House directs the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs.

“Not only do these water projects strengthen tribal sovereignty, but they also solidify a treaty obligation to the Utes here in Colorado. I think that by the tribe’s involvement in a lot of these projects, it provides a very important tool for future economic development, especially, specifically, water,” he says.

While the project is different, the goals are similar in Montana. When the tribes take over the dam there, they say, their sovereignty will be strengthened.

Jordan Thompson of Energy Keepers Inc. stands high above the Kerr Dam outside of Polson, Montana. The tribes in this area are preparing to take over the hydro project in 2015.

The massive Kerr Dam in Montana is near snowcapped mountains, close to ancient buffalo hunting grounds. Emerald green water violently sloshes over the lip of the dam and into the Flathead River. To say the area’s beautiful, is an understatement.

A 19th century treaty created the Flathead Indian Reservation, and later, white settlement brought agriculture. The massive dam was built on tribal land by a local power company in the 1930’s to quench the thirst of newly planted farms.

“This is a place of great spiritual significance for the tribes, and so when the dam was being built, they really resisted, they were trying to not have that dam built,” says Jordan Thompson.

Thompson’s with the tribally-run company that’s preparing to take over ownership of the dam. Despite tribal protests in the 30’s the dam was built and has been producing electricity ever since..

“There were just a bunch of people who built it, over 1200 people at one point. Ten tribal members were killed during the construction of it. It was built because the tribes were just powerless to do anything to stop it,” Thompson says.

Over the years, the dam supplied millions of dollars worth of power. The tribes received a small portion, as rent. Fish habitats were damaged, as the dam continued to generate electricity.

Now, the dam is about to change hands. A treaty signed in 1985 transfers ownership of the dam to the Salish and Kootenai.

“This is significant because it’s an assertion of the tribes sovereignty over the resources they’ve used for their entire existence,” says Sarah Bates with the University of Montana.

She studies water, natural resources and tribal lands. She says what the Salish and Kootenai are doing is a model for other tribes in the U.S.

“It’s happening around the country, this is something that tribes have the capacity to step up and play not just a stakeholder role, but actually an owner and management role. When they aren’t just participants in a process, but actually gain authority over those facilities, that’s a major step forward in asserting and realizing their sovereignty.”

Tribes in Oregon and New York state are now attempting to gain control of hydroelectric projects.

The 1000 foot boardwalk takes you to an overlook of the Kerr Dam, which stretches 540 feet across and 200 feet high.

The Kerr Dam is run by the company PPL Montana and the tribes are still negotiating the purchase price. PPL Montana values the dam at about $51 million, while the tribes say the number is closer to $16 million. Once the issue is resolved, tribal members plan to take over the dam in September of 2015.

This story is the result of an environmental fellowship put on by the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources.