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'Just Don't Blow It': Campaign Helps Blackfeet Manage Land Buyback Payouts

Screen capture from the Piikani Money Campaign website
Screen capture from the Piikani Money Campaign website

When the Blackfeet Tribe learned its tribal members were about to start receiving payouts from a massive federal court settlement, the tribe wanted to get ahead of some of the problems that can arise when a lot of money floods a cash-based society.

"There was about 150 some million dollars that was injected into this economy here," says Mark Magee, the Blackfeet Tribe’s land department director.

For the past few years Magee oversaw local implementation of a federal program that came out of the $3.4 billion court settlement launched two decades ago, when a Blackfeet woman named Elouise Cobell sued the federal government. Cobell said the feds had long mismanaged Indian trust funds nationwide. After the Supreme Court agreed, the ensuing legal settlement, finalized in 2009, included a Land Buy Back Program for Tribal Nations. It gives tribes $1.9 billion to buy people out of tiny privately owned land shares common on reservations all over the country.

Magee says that tribal members today are stuck with an unusual system for passing land from one generation to the next. Instead of inheriting an actual parcel, tribal members inherit a share of the total piece of land. That means you, your four siblings, 10 aunts and uncles, and 75 cousins all have an equal say in what happens with the land, and to farm it, or rent it out to a business, or, really, do anything of value with it, at least half of you need to agree.

"So this is a 320 acre tract, and there are 5 pages of owners. This person owns .000141 percent of a piece of land; and how do you quantify that," Magee asks.

The Land Buy Back Program allows tribes to consolidate these tiny, fractionated shares into tribal government ownership, so that the whole tribe can benefit. But Magee says the Blackfeet Tribe was more interested in getting as many tribal members as possible to participate.

"Our position was that this program wasn't designed for the Tribe, this program was designed for the people. So our priority needs to be the people," Magee says.

So the tribe partnered up with a few banks and a local non-profit to create the Piikani Money Campaign. It’s the first educational campaign associated with the Land Buy Back Program that aims to help people figure out what to do with their payouts.

"We wanted people to be a little wiser with their money," says Angie Main, the executive director of the non-profit that led the Piikani Money Campaign, called the Native American Community Development Corporation Financial Services.

"To have a huge influx of money, and to have all of a sudden available 25, $50,000 for an individual or family, of course you want them to be wise about how they're going to spend that money."

Piikani Money spent nine months putting together radio and TV advertisements. They made billboards and hosted workshops about how to make a personal budget, open a bank account, grow a small business or agriculture, or put down money on big investments like homes and vehicles.

"Just don't blow it. That's pretty much says it," Main says.

Of the 7,000 or so Blackfeet members who were eligible for the land buy back program, about 4,500 took it. A lot of people did spend their Land Buy Back payments right away. One person told me they counted more than 70 brand new trucks driving the strip in Browning on a single day after the checks arrived last winter. And a local elder services group recorded an uptick in reports of elder financial abuse.

On the other hand, a lot of people followed the advice of the Piikani Money Campaign. Most people didn’t want to talk to me about their money decisions, but Carol Decarlo-Courchene told me, "I got a real small part of it, but I got about $800 off of it."

Decarlo-Courchene invested her Land Buy Back money in her business, a little restaurant off Browning’s main strip called The Hut.

Patty Gobert sold half of her fractionated shares.

"Just a little bit better than $10,000," she says.

She got ahead on car payments so she could start saving up for an addition on her house.

The local Native American Bank reported an uptick in the number of savings accounts opened between December and March, when the payments were meted out. People told me they had family members who sent their kids to college, bought new cows, and were looking into setting up investment portfolios.

Angie Main says she’s happy with the Piikani Money Campaign’s results.

"I think it was successful. We're kind of at the end of the campaign right now, but still being asked to make presentations to describe the process we went through."

Now, the Campaign is about to share a toolkit that explains in detail how they did what they did, so that other tribes across the country can tweak it for local use when it’s their turn to implement the Land Buy Back Program.

"I'm hoping that the 20 that are in line the next couple of years will be able to use that toolkit and think about the types of things they need to offer, the information they need to offer in their communities to help these people with that sudden influx of money," Main says.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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