Back To The Future? Canadian First Nation To Implement Land Allotment Policy

Flag of the Nisga'a Nation (University of Victoria)

In a break from long-standing land control policies, the Nisga’a First Nation in British Columbia is set to begin allotting property to its members, who can then mortgage, lease, or sell it – even to non-Nation members.

The new policy is part of an ongoing effort to improve the economic circumstances of the Nisga’a. After three years of study, the Nisga’a government has concluded that restrictions on private property ownership by its members has been a significant obstacle to financial growth. The new policy will provide Nisga’a members with freehold title to their homes, which they can then sell or mortgage as they please, and the policy may soon be extended to the Nation’s commercial and industrial properties.

This new policy from a First Nation in Canada will contrast sharply with policies among Tribal nations located within the United States. The property allotment policy implemented by the federal government during the 20th Century is generally viewed as having been an economic and social disaster for Native communities. The selling off of Tribal lands, typically at below-market value in order to obtain much needed cash, resulted in the “checkerboarding” of Native reservations and an alienation of Native peoples from their traditional homelands. Tribes also lost control of significant mineral wealth and water/mining rights due to the loss of ownership of their lands.  Most Tribes within the U.S. have spent the decades since the end of allotment trying to regain lost lands and return them to permanent Tribal status.

A Tax On The Checkerboard

Fractionation of Pine Ridge Reservation (Villageearth.org)

The exterior boundaries of Tribal reservations are usually fairly well defined, and provide a delineation for when one is leaving state land and entering “Indian Country”. However, the ownership and control of land within the bounds of the reservation is often far less clear. Through previous federal policies such as allotment and termination, much Native land was alienated from Tribal ownership. As a result, ownership maps of present-day reservations often resemble a “checkerboard”, with plots of non-Native-owned land interspersed with Tribal trust lands.

For many Tribes, reacquiring the land within reservation boundaries is both an economic and cultural imperative, and Tribal leaders seek creative legal and business methods of eliminating the checkerboard. The Tulalip Tribes in Washington are presently considering a unique economic tool in this regard: imposing a tax on sales of land by Tribal members to non-Natives. The Tulalip Grassroots Committee, an organization of Tribal members, has proposed a 17 percent tax on the land value on real estate transactions to discourage Tribal members from selling land to non-Native buyers. "We believe the reservation is sacred and we wanted to make sure that not as much land goes out of trust status," states Tulalip Chairman Mel Sheldon.

With real estate prices plummeting nationwide in the tumult of the current economic crisis, Tribes with cash are positioned to more quickly eliminate checkerboard spaces within reservations. While a tax such as that proposed by Tulalip may help reduce alienation of Tribal lands, there is also risk of alienating the surrounding business community by raising a new barrier to transactions on reservations. Balancing the interests of internal cohesiveness and positive external relations will become increasingly important as Tribes navigate through the current nationwide economic crisis.