Why Many Navajo Nation Land Owners Aren't Participating In Federal Buy-Back Program

Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2019 - 1:25pm
Updated: Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 12:24pm
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Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

MARK BRODIE: Data from the U.S. Interior Department shows fewer members of the Navajo Nation took part in a federal land buyback program. In fact, the number of Navajo tribal members who decided to sell their land was among the lowest in the country. The program itself stems from a system known as fractionation, and my next guest has been writing about that. Parker Shea is a reporter for the Arizona Mirror. And, Parker, what exactly is fractionation?

PARKER SHEA: Yeah. So, fractionation, also called fractional ownership — if you were given an original allotment in something called the Dawes Act of 1887, if you're an individual Indian American who is given an allotment, your allotment is passed from generation to generation fractionally. So if you have three kids, they each assume one-third the ownership.

BRODIE: Of the land?

SHEA: Yes. And it's not divisible. So, over time, as in one hundred and thirty years, that has turned into a situation where there's sometimes like thousands of individual owners named on a particular parcel of land. It's like a hundred thirty acres.

BRODIE: And why is this a problem?

SHEA: Well, this is a problem because you need 51 percent of the owners to agree on what you're gonna do with it. So, if you have one 60 acre plot and there's 100 of you and you don't even know where half your family members are because, maybe they're not even registered tribal members anymore, maybe they live in another state, or you're not in contact, then it's very difficult to get enough people together to agree on what to actually do with that land.

BRODIE: So it sounds like that would affect things like development or economic prospects for a particular piece of land?

SHEA: Absolutely. So the executive director of the Eastern Navajo Land Commission — Larry Rodgers — he actually gave a pretty instructive example, but say a utility wants to do some sort of infrastructure project and they need to run water lines or whatever through five different allotments. Well, now they don't need to just get five different owner signatures as they would in other parts of the country. They would need to get 51 percent of each of those five allotments.

BRODIE: Which can be a lot.

SHEA: That could be hundreds. Yeah. So it's, he was pretty stark in his terms about how much of a boundary or an impediment it is to development overall.

BRODIE: So you've also written about a buyback program that involves the federal government. What is that and what did you find?

SHEA: So in order to understand the federal buyback program, you kind of have to understand how we got to where we are with fractionation. And that kind of all started, as I said earlier, with the General Allotment Act of 1887, which gave individual Indian landowners parcels, big pieces of land, basically. So, as the generations wore on, the federal government's expectation was that Indians would sort of change their lifestyle into subsistence farmers. And that didn't work at all because most of the land wasn't actually even viable for agriculture. And also, it wasn't culturally appropriate for them and this host of other reasons. So the federal government realized this system that we've designed is like super ineffective. So, around the same time, this woman, a remarkable woman named Elouise Cobell, who is the treasurer of the Blackfeet Confederacy in Montana, she was looking at the books for her tribe and she realized that the federal government was mismanaging Indian accounts for trust land. So, she lobbied to have the laws changed. Nobody wanted to listen to her. She eventually filed a class action lawsuit, which became one of the biggest class action lawsuits in American history. And that dragged on for 13 or 14 years until the Obama administration. And then they kind of agreed. The federal government looked at its books and said, "Yeah, we've been, it's impossible to keep track of the ownership and how many royalties we actually owe." So they eventually settled for $3.5 billion. The buyback program is a mechanism designed by the Department of Interior to make good on those promises. So I think it's $2 billion out of the $3.5 billion.

BRODIE: So you focused on the Navajo Nation in your reporting, and it seems like members are generally not taking part in this buyback program and choosing not to sell their land.

SHEA: Yeah, that is the case. So that's my most recent story. Preliminary data from the DOI says 24 percent participation rate. And this is a lot of money. It's $150 million that the federal government set aside just for Navajo, but that number is a lot lower. The next lowest number for all reservations in the US was 38, for example. I asked the commissioner about this, and he said that it's kind of just people, people don't wanna sell. I mean, people have a fractional ownership, but they think they can get enough people together to do something with it or they have plans for it. But there are other factors as well.

BRODIE: Like what?

SHEA: Mailing infrastructure, I think is a big one. As many people know from a totally different issue, which is voting rights and, mailing infrastructure on the Navajo reservation is really bad. There's a lot of problems, which, I shouldn't say bad, but there's there's a lot of challenges.

BRODIE: So people might not even get the information in the first place.

SHEA: Yeah. The commissioner said he estimated between 2,000 and 3,000 might not have been notified. And that's out of I think 25,000 total, so it's a significant portion. Definitely not the majority, right, but like a significant portion of people might not have been aware.

BRODIE: So what has the impact been? If if it's measurable at all to the Navajo Nation that so few of its members have chosen to sell back their land?

SHEA: Well, I think is, just getting buybacks completed, people taking the offer at all, is a good thing. And that was kind of the commissioner's opinion on it, too. And that's been President Jonathan Nez's opinion on it as well, Navajo President Jonathan Nez. I think that, no matter what degree to which the buyback program is successful, they're happy it's even happening. And this is where I wanted to touch on one important thing: the Trump administraton's line on this issue is completely the opposite. So, the Deputy Interior Secretary a couple of years ago said that this program is not working at all, like it's completely ineffective. But, a coalition of tribal leaders has said that this is definitely made a dent in fractionation. Now, there are people who criticize the settlement, the Cobell settlement, originally for not being enough money. But that's a question of them wanting the program to go a lot further rather than, you know, not have the program at all.

BRODIE: Alright. That's Parker Shea, a reporter for the Arizona Mirror. Parker, thanks for coming in.

SHEA: Yeah. Thank you.

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