Program continues to address allotted lands

Noel Lyn Smith
Santee Lewis of the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of the Secretary speaks to people interested in the Navajo Land Buy-Back Program during an information session on Thursday at the Farmington Civic Center.

FARMINGTON — Nearly a year since it was started, officials of the Navajo Land Buy-Back Program continue their efforts to inform tribal members who own allotted land about the purpose of the program.

The latest public information session was held Thursday at the Farmington Civic Center for allottees from Arizona and Utah, as well as the Alamo, Ramah and Tóhajiilee chapters.

There are more than 27,000 allottees in New Mexico and more than 5,000 in Arizona, Utah and the three chapters, according to program officials.

In April 2015, the tribe entered into a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of the Interior to implement the land buy-back program. The intent is to educate allotted land owners about the program and facilitate the purchase of individual interest in fractionated land, according to an Interior Department press release.

The program, which the tribe began in July 2015, was developed as part of the Cobell Settlement with the intent to consolidate tribal land that has been fractionated, which is a result of dividing land into individual allotments or tracts.

Throughout the years, the land continues to be divided among owners, often resulting in ownership claims spanning more than one generation.

"It does grow exponentially," said Santee Lewis, senior adviser on tribal relations for the Interior Department’s Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations.

To demonstrate her point, Lewis said there is one tract on the Navajo Nation that has approximately 1,500 owners.

Crowd members interested in the Navajo Land Buy-Back Program listen to a speaker on Thursday during an information session at the Farmington Civic Center.

"That characterizes how fractionated the ownership has become," Lewis said in an interview Thursday.

Calvert Garcia, community involvement specialist with the Navajo Land Buy-Back Program, said the program informed allottees about the buy-back option, and those who decided to participate are now receiving offers from the Interior Department.

If the allotment has a current lease for activities such as oil or gas, it is not considered for the program, he said.

The appraisals issued to owners are based on evaluations to the land surface, he said.

He called the process a "historic situation" because the majority of the allotments have never been appraised.

Right now, the first group — composed of owners from Arizona, Utah and the Alamo, Ramah and Tóhajiilee chapters — have until July 15 to decide whether to sell, Garcia said.

Those who have land in New Mexico will receive offers on July 1 and will have until Aug. 15 to make a decision, he added.

"After they sell, they have no more ownership or interest," he said.

Frankie Davis is the managing director of the Diné Allottee Association. In a telephone interview Friday, Davis criticized how the appraisals are being completed.

Nelson Cody Jr. helps a couple interested in the Navajo Land Buy-Back Program locate their land on a map on Thursday during a meeting at the Farmington Civic Center.

Since appraisals only evaluate the land's surface, and not what is below the surface to determine if there are minerals or other natural resources, the land’s true value remains unknown, and it undercuts the purchase price, she said.

"I believe it's not a fair market value," Davis said.

Another concern is how terminology, like fractionation, is translated into the Navajo language, which can hinder an elder's ability to comprehend the program, especially if the elder does not speak or understand English, she said. There are differences in age and education between individual owners, Davis said.

"I understand the frustration of fractionation, but hold onto your land," she said.

Etta Arviso has allotted land within the Eastern Agency, which is divided among 263 individuals.

She continues to voice opposition to the program and advocates for owners to learn their rights.

"This is totally wrong. I think they’re taking advantage," she said Friday.

Arviso is concerned the program threatens areas that contain burial sites or that are used for traditional purposes.

Another issue involves the potential of future development by the tribe, especially to land that has natural resources, she said.

"What’s underneath? The people need to know," Arviso said.

Another information session for the program will be held Monday, July 11 at San Juan College here.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.