What is Navajo Land Buy-Back Program?
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Representatives with the Navajo Land Buy-Back Program are trying to convince people to opt in and sell land to the Nation.
The Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations implements the land consolidation component of the Cobell Settlement, which provided $1.9 billion to purchase fractional interests in trust or restricted land from willing sellers at a fair market value for a 10-year period, which ends in November 2022.
In April 2015, former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly approved a cooperative agreement for the program with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is under the Department of the Interior called the Navajo Land Buy-Back Program. He said at the time that swift action was necessary because state and private interests were attempting to allow federal land studies. Those studies would undoubtedly focus on allotted lands for privatization to create taxes and other purposes, he said in 2015.
According to the Department of Interior website, about 245,000 people own nearly three million fractional interests across Indian country and are eligible to participate in the Buy-Back Program.
Fractionation refers to divided ownership of Indian lands and is the result of land parcels (allotments) passing to numerous heirs over generations.
"The land itself is not physically divided; rather the heirs of an original [parcel] own undivided interest in the allotment," according to the buy-back website. "Many allotments now have hundreds and even thousands of individual owners."
Fractionation can stand in the way of development because majority approval of the owners is needed, even if they are unknown, before any changes, like building a structure, can be made to the land.
The land buy-back is supposed to consolidate the land by buying the fractionated interest from willing sellers, the land is immediately restored into tribal trust ownership, which allows tribal governments to build on and develop - whether it is plumbing, electricity, economic or agricultural or water development.
Nelson Cody, a public affairs person for the Navajo Land Buy-Back program, said landowners who participate are willing sellers. Land appraisals and mineral and timber evaluations are done by the Office of Appraisals under the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians.
"There is no twisting of arms or any type of persuasion or enforcement," he said.
Cody said many of the lands are hundreds of miles away from a BIA office that would take care of the legal titles. The program, he thinks, has woken people up and gives the Navajo Land Buy-Back Program an opportunity to reach out to people to let them know that they own acres of land.
"I like that responsibility," Cody said. "It allows Navajos to revisit where we came from and why culturally the land and the people and history is important. We should never forget where we came from. That is a really big positive from my aspect."
He said another positive aspect is that a lot of the lands have been passed down with no acknowledgement based on loss of contact and lack of technology. Some, too, is culturally based because Navajos do not necessarily believe in or have a concept for private property.
"It has always been communal, common," Cody said.
With a little research families have found they do have interest.
"It is unique," Cody said. "A lot of people want to know who or what grandparent the land came from and the names associated with the land interest given to them. These are elders who can remember maybe two or three generations back but they still do not know who."
Despite outreach, Cody said rumors about the program are common, like the tribal government is buying the land back to provide land for Syrian and Middle East refugees, which is not true.
But putting aside those rumors, Cody acknowledged that people do not trust that the tribal government has their best interest in mind when deciding what to do with the land.
"I see more positive than negative," Cody said. "We tell them you vote your leaders in. We live in a democracy. You vote for your leaders that would help you in your area. That is part of what democratic government is."
He said the Navajo government agreed to this cooperative agreement to buy back fractionated interest to the tribe could develop the land.
"The opponents always throw out conspiracy," Cody said. "The positive people sell land that they have never lived on and they have no connection to."
He also said because of the program, people get maps of their allotted lands, which they can visit, and where sometimes they encounter families who are living on the land.
"They talk with them and discussion about the history of the land and the clan history, it's very romantic as far as relationships growing," Cody said.
He added many families want to stay on the land they have lived on all their life and people with the interest in the land do not want those people to get thrown off either.
Cody said it is a very political question and the program asks a few questions in those scenarios.
"Do they have a home site lease? The home site lease is it approval of a 20-year lease on one acre of land?" Cody said. "Some say, yeah, they do."
If the people living on the land do have a home site lease, the program lease allows them to stay on the land. But the land surrounding them is still owned by the tribal government if the land buy-back has taken place. The renewal of the home site lease would then go through the tribal government for another 20-year home site lease.
Cody said that if a family did not have a home site lease, the people would still not get thrown off but they would have to apply for a home site lease.
"They should always apply for one," Cody said because a lot of the land is trust land. Even if a single owner held 100 percent interest, they would still need to get a home site lease from the BIA.
It takes a 51 percent interest in the land to build a structure and to approve a home site lease.
Cody said people are educating themselves on the positives and negatives of the program and are coming in informed about the choices they have, whether that is gifting it to future generations or selling it.
"They are being proactive about managing their interest," he said. "That is gratifying to see the elders come in being informed and making these decisions."
The main office for the Navajo-Nation Land Buy-Back Program is in Crownpoint, with other satellite offices in Leupp, Gallup and Farmington.
More information can be found at https://www.doi.gov/buybackprogram.
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