Navajo buy-back program hit wall as many owners refused to sell, land commissioner says

U.S. Air Force Academy cadets and faculty work with site managers to help build low-cost housing on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. U.S. Air Force photo/John Van Winkle

The latest round of the Department of Interior’s federal buy-back program aimed at consolidating ownership of tribal lands hit a wall in Navajo country, as three-quarters of buy-back offers were not accepted. 

Nearly 20,000 individuals were sent offers in this round of the buy-back, but preliminary figures from DOI show that only 24% accepted their offers. Larry Rodgers, executive director of the Eastern Navajo Land Commission, said that’s because fractional owners simply did not want to sell.

“We might have hit some kind of a saturation point. People that don’t want to sell have made up their mind. So, they’re not going to move on a second offer or third offer,” he said. 

Information about the buy-back program was sent to the owners via mail, so mailing infrastructure may have played a role in participation levels. Rodgers said between 2,000 and 3,000 allottees may not have been notified of the most recent round of the program. 

Fractional land ownership, often called “fractionation,” is the multiple ownership of land allotments that were originally carved up by the U.S. government and offered to individual American Indians as part of the General Allotment Act of 1887. That law enshrined a system of inheritance where subsequent generations gain fractional ownership of the original allotments. 

This has resulted in some allotments with hundreds and even, according to the DOI, thousands of fractional owners. 

Fractionation is one major problem resulting from the General Allotment Act, which the Indian Land Trust Foundation describes as the “single most devastating federal policy” to Indian land ownership. The Navajo suffers from fractionation like all reservations do, and Rodgers said it is one of the biggest impediments to development on the reservation. 

In order for the land to be developed, even for basic infrastructure projects like expanding electricity to remove communities, a majority of the fractional owners must agree. Gathering the approval from dozens or hundreds of owners on a particular property is a steep logistical challenge that stymies development.

For instance, Rodgers said it is common for utility companies to be unable or unwilling to do infrastructure projects that require the consent of multiple allotment owners. 

“It makes it very, very difficult for utility companies,” Rodgers said. “It’s problem enough that the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority doesn’t even serve Eastern Navajo with electricity.” 

Roughly 1 in 10 Navajo, or about 60,000 tribal residents, don’t have electricity in their homes

Rodgers said Eastern Navajo is served by five different utility companies, compared to the rest of the reservation that is served by just the Tribal Utility. 

“It impacts for sure the rate of development,” he said.

Meanwhile, fractionation remains a looming problem with no sign of ending. The future of Indian country, enshrined in law by the General Allotment Act, will involve greater and greater degrees of fractionation. Although the recent buy-back took many of those allotments out of individual ownership and put them instead in a tribal trust, owners who did not accept offers will leave their children and grandchildren to deal with shared ownership.

“Fractionation is not going to stop just because of this program,” Rodgers said. “In 30 or 40 years, we’ll be right back to where we were.” 

Still, Rodgers said he thinks that both rounds of the buy-back were a success for Navajo country. He said the latest round gave even the on-the-fence owners and holdouts the opportunity to participate and that, overall, the program alleviated problems associated with fractionation. 

Cronkite News reported in 2017 following the Navajo Nation’s first round of the buy-back that the Nation called its results “‘the most successful program’ among the tribes involved in the buy-back.” 

This contradicts the view of President Donald Trump’s administration, which has said the program didn’t make a difference at all.

“After expending a total of $1.3 billion to date, it is my view that Interior has not been successful in materially reducing fractional interests,” Acting Deputy Interior Secretary James Cason told a House Natural Resources subcommittee in 2017. “In my mind we are almost back where we started eight years ago, just merely treading water.”

As for efforts to change the laws that govern Indian allotment inheritance, and end fractionation, Rodgers said it’s a touchy subject in Navajo country.

“It’s a political hot potato,” he said. “Nobody wants to touch it with a ten-foot pole.”


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