The Navajo Nation

Office of the President

     The Navajo Nation

Office of the President

President Nygren welcomes volunteer law students

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – President Buu Nygren met with law students from the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law who spent their spring break helping Navajo families navigate through the complex web of establishing a will and an estate plan.

An estate plan, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, is a broader plan of action for a person’s assets that may apply during their life as well as after death. A will, or naaltsoos adándééniił, is a legal document that dictates where a person’s assets may go after they die.

“You’re doing this out of the goodness of your heart and sense of duty, a sense of, ‘How can we help Navajo people with some of the things that is very difficult to do on their own?’” President Nygren said.

The law students volunteered with an organization called Tribal Wills Clinic, made up of licensed attorneys, who provide pro bono legal assistance helping tribal members write wills.

Lucy Marsh, a professor at University of Denver Sturm College of Law, said the Tribal Wills Clinic is comprised of experts who understand what trust land is.

Trust land is a territory, in which one party agrees to hold title to the property for the benefit of another party. Placing tribal land into a trust is the process where the Department of the Interior acquires the title to a land and holds it for the benefit of a tribe or individual tribal members.

In the late 1800s, Indian tribes signed treaties with the U.S. government, ceded titles for their lands in exchange for protection, health care, education, permanent reservations, and sovereignty. In many cases, tribes retained rights to resources and how they can be used on lands they ceded to the government, even when those lands extended beyond the borders of their reservations. These rights included drilling, grazing, hunting mining, timber production, and other land uses through which companies make money.

“We know how to do or AIPRA (American Indian Probate Reform Act)-compliant wills. And the reason we got started with this is that people who own trust land generally have a smaller than five-percent interest. And if they don’t do wills, then it all goes only to the one oldest child, or the one oldest grandchild,” Marsh explained. “And we have yet to meet a client who wants that to happen.”

Marsh added the clinic can also include into the wills “items of special importance.” She explained that a Navajo rug woven by a másání could be added into a will.

“We put that in, and we put a little history of the rug in the will, which is a help for the family because most of us remember stories from our grandparents,” said Marsh.

President Nygren praised the volunteers and the law students for their important work in assisting the Navajo people decide out how to disburse their estates and property to their family members.

“I’m very honored and very humbled that you’re here doing this, and just wanting to help my people,” said President Nygren. “So, thank you very much. I’m happy that your heart is in the right place to be here. I know you could have been either on campus doing what you need to do but you decided to spend a few days away from campus and be here on the Navajo Nation to help some very tough people – some of them don’t speak English, some of them have time reading things, or some of them haven’t really thought about the thing that you’re presenting. It means a lot to me.”

Megan Uren, a third-year law student at the university, said she was very glad she had an opportunity to visit Navajo Nation.

“I enjoyed getting to draft wills here and use my legal skills to help people and their families. I feel very fortunate to have a chance to learn about Navajo members’ stories, culture, tradition, and language. We were excited to go to the museum as well and learn about Navajo history,” said Uren.

Today, the U.S. Department of Interior holds 55 million surface acres and 57 million acres in subsurface estates “in trust” for Native Americans. This federal trust responsibility mandates both moral and legal, fiduciary obligation to protect tribal treaty rights, land assets, and other resources in permanency. To avoid a conflict of interest, the responsibility of managing the lands assets is separate from the management of money earned by those assets.

Photos: (1) President Buu Nygren speaks tolaw students from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and volunteer attorneys with Tribal Wills Clinic in Window Rock. (2) President Buu Nygren, center, poses with law students from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and volunteer attorneys with Tribal Wills Clinic in Window Rock.