Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation: Executive Branch and Legislative Action Needed for Closure and Transfer of Activities
A 1974 law divided land used by the Navajo and Hopi tribes into two regions, requiring families to move. Eligible families could receive relocation expenses.
Lawmakers anticipated 1,000 families would relocate in under 5 years, but decades later, over 3,600 families have relocated and the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation—created to carry out the relocation—continues to operate. The office stated its intent to close by September 2018.
We recommend that the office take steps to help ensure that its uncompleted relocation activities can be transferred to other agencies if it closes.
Example of a Relocation Home
A photo of a ranch-style relocation home.
What GAO Found
As of December 2017, the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation, and its predecessor agency (collectively, ONHIR), has relocated 3,660 Navajo and 27 Hopi families off disputed lands that were partitioned to the two tribes and provided new houses for them. Although the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act of 1974 (Settlement Act) intended for ONHIR to complete its activities 5 years after its relocation plan went into effect, the agency has continued to carry out its responsibilities for over three decades beyond the original deadline and the potential remains for relocation activities to continue into the future. For example, GAO found that by the end of fiscal year 2018
- at least 240 households whose relocation applications were previously denied could still file for appeals in federal court and if the court rules in their favor these households could become eligible for relocation benefits under the Settlement Act, and
- ONHIR is still responsible for helping homeowners who might request repairs for 52 relocation homes that remain under warranty.
ONHIR believes that it has substantially completed its responsibilities under the Settlement Act and has stated its intent to close by September 2018. However, ONHIR does not have the authority to close its operations and has not yet taken the steps necessary to facilitate such a closure. GAO identified a number of areas where either executive branch or congressional actions would be needed to affect a closure of ONHIR, as shown in these examples:
- The Settlement Act states that ONHIR will cease to exist when the President determines that its functions have been fully discharged. ONHIR, however, has not requested a determination nor provided specific information to the President that could facilitate such a decision.
- ONHIR has prepared a transition plan and identified potential successor agencies that could assume its remaining activities. However, officials at these agencies said they currently do not have authority under the Settlement Act to undertake ONHIR's activities. Without congressional authorization these agencies would not be able to succeed ONHIR.
- ONHIR has prepared an implementation plan to guide its closure but has not yet taken necessary steps to ensure that all the key information about its activities has been compiled. For example, ONHIR's database for tracking warranty requests is missing information, such as the date of warranty repairs and other contractor information. Similarly, ONHIR has not prepared complete information from its files on the remaining denied households who could file for federal appeals. Federal internal control standards state that agencies should identify and respond to risks and use quality information. By not preparing complete information on the relocation activities it has been engaged in, ONHIR places an effective transition of its functions to another agency at risk. This is because any successor agency authorized to continue these activities will not have the complete information needed to effectively fulfill these functions.
Why GAO Did This Study
In 1974, the Settlement Act was intended to provide for the final settlement of a land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes that originated nearly a century ago. The act created ONHIR to carry out the relocation of Navajo and Hopi Indians off land partitioned to the other tribe. ONHIR's relocation efforts were scheduled to end by 1986. However, those efforts continue today.
GAO was asked to review ONHIR's operations. Among other things, this report discusses (1) ONHIR's management and the status of relocation activities and (2) executive branch and legislative actions that may be needed for ONHIR to close and transfer remaining activities. GAO reviewed documentation; interviewed officials at ONHIR and other federal agencies, as well as from the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe; and conducted two site visits to ONHIR's offices and the Navajo reservation in Arizona.
GAO is making four matters for congressional consideration; including that Congress provide successor agencies necessary authority to continue ONHIR's remaining activities if it closes. GAO is also making five recommendations to ONHIR, including that it request a closure determination from the President and prepare necessary information to facilitate the transfer of its activities to a successor. ONHIR neither agreed nor disagreed with the five recommendations and stated it had either already taken steps or planned to once a successor is identified. GAO continues to believe the recommendations are valid, as discussed in the report.
Matter for Congressional Consideration
|Congress should consider providing necessary authority for other agencies to continue remaining activities when ONHIR closes. (Matter for Consideration 1)||As of April 2022, legislation has not yet been enacted that would authorize other agencies to assume remaining functions from ONHIR. The report accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2019 directs ONHIR to continue working on the development of a comprehensive plan for closing ONHIR which includes legal analysis on whether any enacting legislation is required to transfer functions to another agency or organization. The explanatory statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 continued the direction to bring the relocation process to an orderly conclusion. We will continue to monitor any relevant legislation.|
|Congress should consider determining (1) whether the requirement for the land acquired pursuant to the Settlement Act as amended to be used solely for the benefit of relocatees should continue and (2) how grazing on the New Lands should be regulated. (Matter for Consideration 2)||As of April 2022, legislation has not yet been enacted that would address whether the requirement for the land to be used solely for the benefit of relocatees should continue or regulation of grazing on the New Lands. The explanatory statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 directs the Department of the Interior to submit a comprehensive plan that addresses the transfer of all outstanding records and services, including rangeland activities, to other bureaus and agencies before the closure of ONHIR and to continue to work with ONHIR to immediately consult with the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe on matters related to the closure and transition. We will continue to monitor any relevant legislation.|
|Congress should consider addressing the mandatory trust acquisition provision for the Navajo Nation in the Settlement Act as amended. (Matter for Consideration 3)||As of April 2022, legislation has not yet been enacted to address the mandatory trust acquisition provision. The explanatory statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 directs the Department of the Interior to submit a comprehensive plan that addresses the transfer of all outstanding records and services to other bureaus and agencies before the closure of ONHIR. We will continue to monitor any relevant legislation.|
|Congress should consider whether the requirement for the Navajo Nation to repay the U.S. Treasury for appropriations made to the Navajo Rehabilitation Trust Fund should continue. (Matter for Consideration 4)||As of April 2022, legislation has not yet been enacted to address the mandatory trust acquisition provision. We will continue to monitor any relevant legislation.|
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation||The Executive Director of ONHIR should request a presidential determination as to whether ONHIR has fully discharged its responsibilities and whether it should close. (Recommendation 1)||
The explanatory statement to the Consolidated Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2019 states that the determination that ONHIR's functions have been fully discharged requires development of a comprehensive plan. In May 2021, ONHIR officials stated that they regularly communicate with the Office of Management and Budget and provide monthly program updates to Congress. As of May 2022, no request for a presidential determination on the closure of ONHIR has been made. ONHIR officials explained that with pending federal court litigation and legislation to continue ONHIR, ONHIR's anticipated closure when we conducted our work has become unlikely. We will continue to monitor ONHIR's actions in response to this recommendation.
|Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation||The Executive Director of ONHIR should prepare complete information on the remaining denied households who could still file for federal appeals. Such information could include paper case files and information in ONHIR's client database for those households. (Recommendation 2)||
As of June 2020, ONHIR officials had developed a schedule of cases that were still eligible to file for federal appeals and reported that the files have been gathered, organized, and prepared. Officials also stated that all closed case files that are not subject to an administrative appeal were transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration. While Interior's Inspector General found that ONHIR had accounted for all cases eligible for appeal with NARA's inventory in its September 2020 report, it found examples of incomplete case files in the samples they reviewed. In May 2021, ONHIR officials stated that they would be able to easily assemble complete case files for a successor when needed, and that they needed to know who the successor would be before preparing any guidance on accessing needed information. However, as of May 2022, with pending federal court litigation and legislation to continue ONHIR's work, officials said they are not taking steps to address GAO's recommendation at this time. We maintain that proactively compiling complete documents would facilitate transition to another agency upon ONHIR's closure, as appropriate.
|Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation||The Executive Director of ONHIR should prepare complete information on warranties and contractors. Such preparation should include linking warranty complaints to the relevant contractor, completing missing warranty information, and completing information on contractors' past performance. (Recommendation 3)||
As of May 2021, ONHIR's updated warranty file database remained incomplete based on our review. For example, the name of the contractor is not linked to the warranty compliant. A September 2020 report from Interior's Inspector General found that ONHIR still does not track warranty complaints by contractor. In May 2021, officials stated that information about the status of warranties is available in its database system. However, as of May 2022, with pending federal court litigation and legislation to continue ONHIR's work, officials said they are not taking steps to address GAO's recommendations at this time. We will continue to follow up as appropriate.
|Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation||The Executive Director of ONHIR should establish a comprehensive inventory of (1) properties located on trust land it administers, (2) leases of those properties, and (3) surface use and other use agreements for trust land it administers. (Recommendation 4)||
In June 2020, ONHIR reported that it had updated and maintains on its website a comprehensive inventory that includes property, leases, and surface use agreements on all trust land it administers. As of March 2022, our review of the updated inventory found that all leases identified at the time of our review are included. However, ONHIR provided information about an additional agreement that was in effect at the time of our review but had not been identified at that time. Therefore, we will continue to follow up with the agency on the comprehensiveness of the inventory.
|Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation||The Executive Director of ONHIR should identify which leases and other agreements need to be amended or assigned because (1) ONHIR is the lessor, (2) the lease or agreement provides for annual payments to be made to ONHIR, and/or (3) the lease or agreement terminates upon ONHIR's closure. (Recommendation 5)||
In March 2022, ONHIR said it had not amended any leases to make the Navajo Nation or ONHIR's successor in interest the lessor because it was waiting for ONHIR termination legislation to be enacted.