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.

Probate of Native American Trust, Personal, and Real Property Under AIPRA

As is frequently the case with issues dealing with Tribal law, the question of what court has jurisdiction to probate a decedent’s assets -- and which law that court will apply -- is much more complicated for an Native American decedent than it is for non-Native citizens. Three different sovereigns may have jurisdiction and control over the property – a Tribe, a state, or the federal government. Which court will have jurisdiction, and which law will apply, depends on the nature of the property (personal, real, or trust), where the decedent lived and was domiciled, and where the property was located at the time of death. Trust property is handled exclusively by federal government under the American Indian Probate Reform Act (AIPRA), while a Native decedent’s personal and real property is distributed under either Tribal or state law.  Duncan Connelly's article provides an overview of how AIPRA governs the probate process for trust or restricted land, and describes the established, albeit complicated, system of probate for an Native American decedent’s non-trust land personal and real property. The issues discussed warrant careful consideration as Tribes and their members work to implement personal and collective priorities regarding the protection of cultural resources and Tribal assets.
 

Should Tribes Be Allowed To Tax Trust Lands?

(Photo courtesy of Martha Lou Perritti)

In nearly every jurisdiction throughout the United States, local governments derive a significant portion of their operating revenue from property taxes.  The money land owners pay in property taxes goes to fund basic infrastructure such as roads and schools and services such as police and fire protection.

There is however one jurisdiction within which the local government cannot collect property taxes: Tribal lands held in federal trust.

Tribal governments cannot impose property taxes on reservation land that has been taken into trust by the federal government, which is typically most if not all of the land owned by Tribal members within the bounds of a reservation.  Tribes are thus deprived of the benefit of countless millions of dollars in revenue that would normally be available to any other municipality.  With poverty and sub-standard facilities still endemic on reservations throughout America, there is a sad irony in the fact that the place where property taxes could do the most good are the only places they cannot be collected and put back into the community.

The denial of taxing authority to Tribes also has another negative impact on Native Communities, this time in the context of the national consciousness.  In order to make up for unavailable property tax revenue, many Tribes utilize alternative income sources such as casino gaming and discounted tobacco products to finance basic services within their reservations.  Since in most states these offerings are only available within the sovereign territory of a Tribe, many Americans hold an ill-informed view that Native Americans enjoy "special privileges", and that other benefits and services to Tribes should therefore be curtailed.  The lack of understanding of why these alternative revenue sources are necessary could perhaps be overcome by touring the decrepit infrastructure with which many Tribal Communities continue to be saddled, but such ventures by non-Natives are far from routine.

There's no insurmountable obstacle to allowing Tribes to tax land within their jurisdictions.  The federal government could enter into taxing agreements with Tribes that would allow for collection of some form of property tax, which Tribes could help structure so as to increase revenue without placing an undue financial burden on Tribal members.  Numerous models for such agreements already exist, in the form of retail sales tax compacts between state and Tribal governments for business activities occurring on reservations.