Diné would be priority under Cobell plan

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, February 9, 2012

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W hen attorneys for Elouise Cobell visited the Checkerboard area of the Navajo Nation to apprise allottees of the latest developments in their suit against the federal government, it never failed that a confused elder would present them with an oil or gas royalty check from the government for a few pennies - less than it cost the feds to mail it out.

"Tell Washingdoon they can save their stamp," said a man from Pueblo Pintado Chapter at one of the meetings. "I'm not paying $30 for gas to drive to Gallup and cash a check for seven cents."

He may soon be able to sell his share of an allotment that's not doing him any good, enabling the tribe to put the land to use for everyone's benefit.

The reason for the low royalty rates - besides the fact the feds were probably neglecting to negotiate the best rates for minerals on Indian land, as Cobell was finally able to get them to concede in 2010 - is something called "fractionation."

When the BIA started allotting parcels of land to individual Indians in the early 20th Century, it assumed the Natives would treat land ownership more or less as white people did - and that they would prepare for their death by writing a will transferring the deed to an heir.

This assumption ignored the fact that a lot of Natives at the time were barely literate in English, that they couldn't afford to hire an attorney even if it would have occurred to them, and that many tribes, like the Diné, had taboos against talking about or preparing for death.

So, over the generations, every time a landowner died, ownership of the parcel (most of which were less than 160 acres to begin with) was divided among his or her heirs.

Today, there are 4,123 fractionated allotments on Navajo, divided among 247,104 owners (that's not necessarily that many individuals because many names appear many times because they have ownership in more than one claim).

That's an average of almost 60 owners per tract. If a piece of land has an oil or gas well that is producing $100 a month in royalties, and it's owned by 100 people, that's a dollar a month for each owner - not enough to do anyone any good.

In some areas of the country, where allotment began earlier, it's even worse. Interior has recorded individual ownership interests to the 42nd decimal.

So one of the provisions of the Cobell settlement was to set aside $1.9 billion for the government to buy back fractionated land tracts to hold in trust for the tribes.

The settlement won't be final until four appeals are heard but in the meantime the U.S. Department of the Interior is hammering out a plan for the massive buyback.

The draft plan, written in consultation with federally recognized tribes across the country, was read into the Federal Register Feb. 2, kicking off a 45-day comment period.

If the draft plan survives more or less intact, it's good news for Navajos. The plan prioritizes areas where the allottees are willing to sell, the land is highly fractionated, and the dollar value of the individual accounts is low - all three of which conditions exist here.

Plus, there's already an office of the Indian Land Consolidation Program - started as a pilot project in 1999 in response to the Cobell suit - in Crownpoint.

The consolidation program will be optional and individuals can choose to keep their fraction of an allotment and a tribe can opt out altogether.

If the appeals to Cobell are unsuccessful and Interior gets the green light, it hopes to have all 4 million fractionated land tracts consolidated within 10 years.

In other Cobell-related news, the first meeting of the National Commission on Indian Trust Administration and Reform - another product of the settlement - is scheduled for March 1-2 in at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C.

"The March meeting will mark the first time the five recently named members of the commission will meet to move forward on their comprehensive evaluation of Interior's management and administration of the trust assets, as well as recommendations for improvement," reads a news release from Interior.

The new commission includes former Navajo Nation chairman and president Peterson Zah.

To see the draft consolidation plan, visit www.doi.gov/cobell/upload/FINAL-DRAFT-Cobell-Land-Consolidation-Program-Draft-Plan-31-Jan-2012-2.pdf

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