For as long as they can remember, residents of the Navajo Nation’s Casamero Lake Chapter have wanted paved roads.
But federal policy enacted 130 years ago stalled even the simplest improvements in this tiny community of about 500 people located in rural New Mexico. Here, individuals were granted 160-acre allotments of land under the Dawes Act of 1887, a law that aimed to turn Natives into subsistence farmers and landowners while opening “surplus” lands to white settlers.
Six generations later, those parcels of land have passed to hundreds or even thousands of individual heirs, leading to fractionated interests of the original parcels—and an impasse when it comes to infrastructure or other improvements. In short, the Dawes Act has made it nearly impossible for tribes—or individuals—to effectively use millions of acres of Indian land, said Leonard Tsosie, chairman of the Eastern Navajo Land Commission.
In Casamero Lake, that means residents are still driving on dirt roads.
“We can’t pave the road because we need the allottees to sign off on the right-of-way,” said Tsosie, who also serves as a Navajo Nation Council delegate representing the Casamero Lake Chapter. “One tract of land has 400 separate interests, and we can’t find half of those people.”
All of this is changing as the Interior Department continues to administer its Land Buy-Back Program, a component of the Cobell Settlement that was established in 2012 and provided $1.9 billion for tribes to consolidate fractionated land interests. Under the Land Buy-Back Program, allottees can voluntarily sell their interests at fair market value and the Interior restores the land to tribes, opening it for development.
Since the program began making offers to landowners in December 2013, it has paid out $1 billion, or more than half of its budget, said Michael Connor, deputy secretary of the Interior. One-tenth of that was spent on the Navajo Nation alone, where more than 11,000 landowners sold nearly 75,000 fractionated interests and received checks worth a total of $108 million.
“That money went immediately to individuals who decided for themselves they wanted to sell,” Connor said during a January 5 ceremony in Window Rock, Arizona, held to highlight the Land Buy-Back Program. “They decided for themselves how they wanted to use the money to improve their lives.”
Once the land is returned to tribes, leaders can decide how to develop it, Connor said. Nationwide, the program has restored 1.9 million acres to tribal governments, for use in residential or commercial development, or to be placed under protection for ceremonial purposes.
“We’re already seeing the difference this program is making,” Connor said. “In addition to the significant resources flowing into Indian country, returning fractionated lands to tribes in trust has enormous potential to improve tribal community resources by increasing home site locations, improving transportation routes, spurring tribal economic development and preserving traditional cultural or ceremonial sites.”
The Land Buy-Back Program debuted on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 2013. Since then, it has established tribal ownership of 50 percent or greater in more than 11,000 parcels across Indian country, freeing that land for development.
On the Navajo Nation, the program restored more than 155,000 acres of land, including 38 allotments now 100-percent owned by the tribe, said John McClanahan, manager of the Land Buy-Back Program. It also doubled the number of allotments the tribe controls with at least 50-percent ownership—from 289 parcels to 568—for a total of 90,000 acres.
In some cases, McClanahan said, the Interior encountered allotments with as many as 1,500 owners. That kind of fractionation made development on tens of thousands of Navajo acres impossible.
“This program is making land stronger,” McClanahan said. “Seventy times more of the land now is managed by the tribe.”
In places like Casamero Lake, consolidation of interests means long-overdue improvements may finally be on the horizon, Tsosie said. With 50-percent ownership of allotments, the tribe no longer has to track down hundreds of individual owners to get permission to build.
“Moving forward just got a lot easier,” he said.
The January 5 ceremony, held in the Navajo Nation Museum, came as the Obama Administration prepares to leave office. Although federal and tribal leaders applauded the Land Buy-Back Program’s success, they also voiced concerns about how the program will progress in the future.
“Our work is not done,” Connor said. “The reality is that we’ve got ongoing fractionation that’s occurring now.”
Although it has spent half its budget, the program still has until 2022 to continue working with tribes. Connor estimated that when the program ends, however, as much as 4 million acres of Indian land will still be fractionated.
“We need to continue this program into the next administration and the one after that,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll have the same problem we have now, in the future.”