Navajo Nation Vice President Nez Touts Land-use Bill, Notes Ways to Improve It

Cronkite News | Isaac Windes
Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, left, said that tribes have to deal with layers of federal bureaucracy for most projects, adding “years … and a lot of resources” to their length and cost.

Published October 30, 2017

WINDOW ROCK – Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez took his message of Ta’áá hwóajit’éego to Washington, D.C., Wednesday as he testified and voiced support for the American Indian Empowerment Act of 2017.

“I strive to live by this saying and I think that when Congress takes action on legislation such as this, we are working together to support tribal resiliency, self-governance and empowerment,” said Nez at a meeting of the House Subcommittee on Indian Insular and Alaska Native Affairs.

The act, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is a tribal lands bill, a version of which was introduced in 2012 to give tribes self-governance when it comes to their lands. The act would create a process for tribes to take lands out of trust and place them into restricted fee status.

Similar to trust lands, restricted fee land cannot be removed from tribal ownership and is protected from taxation. This could help tribes control parts of tribal lands as they pursue economic or natural resource development.

“I’m confident in the American Indian and Alaskan Native ability to get the job done,” said Young. “All I’m trying to do with this bill is to let you guys be more self determined. I want to make sure you have that ability.”

In his testimony, Nez gave four highlights of the bill he believed beneficial, but he also gave three suggestions on how the bill could be improved.

“Indian land should not be treated like federal public land,” said Nez. “Tribal nation land should be treated as tribal nation land and nothing else.”

With this mindset, Nez said, it could help the Navajo Nation in housing, utility infrastructure build-out, or economic development by eliminating unnecessary and duplicative bureaucratic reviews.

Other highlights he agreed with were: the decision to transfer to restricted fee land is entirely up to the tribal nation and no one else; protection against the loss or alienation of Indian lands; and “nothing in this section shall be construed to diminish the Federal trust responsibility to any Indian tribe.”

“I’m open to improving my bills,” said Young. “You have to work with us … I don’t have pride in the birth of this, it all came from the Native groups.”

Nez suggested that the bill should have one further option for tribes to revert land back to trust from restricted fee land if they deem it in their best interest; make it clear that tribes have exclusive taxing authority over the land, not states and local governments; and acknowledging that a tribe has civil jurisdiction over all incidents on restricted fee land.

“I am encouraged by the reception from the subcommittee on the testimony,” said Nez. “I think if the sponsor is asking us to make changes I think we should be able to make progress.”

Nez was one of five tribal leaders and advocates who presented at the subcommittee.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the Navajo Times. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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