Navajo Nation set to plant tribe’s flag with embassy near U.S. Capitol
Monday, February 15, 2021
By Acee Agoyo
WÁSHINDOON — Amid concerns about COVID-19 and public safety, leaders of the Navajo Nation are establishing a permanent home here to advocate for their tribe’s needs.
The acquisition of a property next to the U.S. Capitol will strengthen the tribe’s lobbying efforts, President Jonathan Nez said on Sunday. He signed a bill, which was approved by the Navajo Nation Council after heated debate, to acquire land and buildings at 11 D Street SE in Wáshindoon, also known as the District of Columbia.
“It’s a historic investment that will establish the Navajo Nation’s presence near Congress and build equity for many years to come,” Nez said of the purchase. “We will be the only tribal nation to own land and property near Capitol Hill and it will allow us greater access to meet with members of Congress and other federal partners to advocate for the Navajo people.”
The investment is costing the tribe about $5 million. The price tag has raised alarms back home, where the coronavirus continues to impact the Navajo people at disproportionate rates, and where many citizens often lack access to water, adequate housing and other basic services on the largest reservation in the U.S.
Amid concerns about #COVID19 and public safety, the Navajo Nation Council just approved the purchase of 11 D Street SE in Washington DC for $5 million.
“How can the president assist me to response to constituents that are currently living in tents during COVID, currently living in a shack house with cardboard around their home?” Navajo Nation Council Delegate Vince James said in questioning the need for the acquisition.
“How do I respond to those kinds of families?” James said during debate on the issue on January 30.
Other lawmakers voiced concerns about the proximity of 11 D Street SE to the U.S. Capitol complex, where a deadly attack took place on January 6 at the hands of Donald Trump’s supporters. The building in fact sits right outside a huge security perimeter that has been erected in the wake of the violence.
“I would rather put this money toward people who need electricity at this moment,” said Charlaine Tso, another council delegate.
But Santee Lewis, a tribal citizen who serves as executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, insisted that the location will benefit from the presence of U.S. Capitol police, the National Guard and other security personnel. She said she recently took a walk around the perimeter to ensure it was safe for tribal employees.
“It is important that this acquisition is recognized as a home for the Navajo people in Washington, D.C.,” Lewis told lawmakers during consideration of the measure. “The Navajo Nation would be making way for other tribal nations and Indian Country to move advocacy efforts forward in Washington.”
The Navajo Nation Council took two votes on Legislation 0220-20, which authorized the Navajo Nation Washington Office to purchase the property, using proceeds from the tribe’s land acquisition trust fund. The first was a procedural vote, which barely cleared by the two-thirds majority required.
“I just cannot justify how purchasing land in Washington, D.C. achieves any of the goals or purposes” of the land acquisition trust fund, asserted Eugenia Charles-Newton, a council delegate.
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton: Acquisition of 11 D Street SE
The second was on the bill itself, which passed with the same vote of 16 to 7, though only a plurality was required. The roll calls came on the last day of the council’s winter session.
“With the purchase of property in Washington, D.C., in close proximity to the US Capitol building, the Navajo Nation looks now to build our position from a permanent place alongside Congressional and federal leadership,” Council Speaker Seth Damon said on Sunday after the bill was signed into law. “We look ahead to our future generations and we pray this action will create a better place for them to lead our nation.”
The Navajo Nation Washington Office (NNWO) currently rents space in a commercial office building at 750 First Street NE, which is north of the U.S. Capitol, not far from Union Station, a major transportation hub. The property at 11 D Street SE is located close to Capitol South, another transit station on the Washington subway.
According to tribal officials, the NNWO pays about $25,000 per month in rent, plus utilities, at the commercial building. Since November 2003, the tribe has spent more than $3.5 million on rental space.
“That money will never come back to the Navajo Nation,” said Council Delegate Pernell Halona, who voted for the acquisition. “We need to look past it and see this is an investment.”
Establishing a permanent home for the Navajo Nation in Wáshindoon has long been a priority for tribal officials but talks picked up last summer, when the executive branch began pursuing the purchase of 11 D Street SE. An earnest money deposit of $240,000 — basically a good-faith down payment — was requested in early July 2020, according to an internal tribal request seen by Indianz.Com.
The property consists of land and two buildings — a two-story home and a structure called a carriage house — on approximately 0.15 acres. According to D.C. property tax records, the land is valued at $1,126,360 for 2021, while the two buildings are valued at $871,970.
The purchase price, according to Legislation 0220-20, however, is much higher. The tribe agreed to buy the property from the current owners for about $4.8 million.
The tribe further agreed to cover the closing costs of the real estate deal, coming to about $90,000, according to the bill. Another $100,000 will be spent on renovations and repairs, plus another $150,000 to hire architects to design the Navajo Nation Embassy. The bill estimates the total cost of the project to be $5.1 million.
With the purchase, the Navajo Nation joins a small group of tribal interests with a presence in Washington, D.C. The Chickasaw Nation also owns property in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
The building at 330 East Capitol NE was previously occupied by the late Charles Blackwell, the tribe’s longtime Ambassador to the United States, who passed away in 2013. It continues to be used as a home for the Chickasaw Nation Embassy.
The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians maintains an office in a commercial building at 422 First Street SE. The tribe also owns a stake in the Residence Inn by Marriott hotel at 333 E Street SW, in an area just west of the U.S. Capitol.
And just around the corner from the forthcoming Navajo Nation Embassy and the San Manuel Band office is the permanent home of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA). The building at 224 2nd Street SE has been owned by the inter-tribal organization since the early 1990s, when a visionary team consisting of the late Rick Hill (Oneida Nation), the late Tim Wapato (Colville Tribes) and Wapato’s wife, A. Gay Kingman (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe), recognized the need for owning a space in Capitol Hill.
“It truly is a beacon for Indian Country,” Jason Giles, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who serves as NIGA’s executive director, said of the organization’s space near the U.S. Capitol.
In 2015, NIGA, which represents dozens of tribal nations, completed an expansion at its home. Giles pointed out that the project took much longer than expected, so the San Manuel Band stepped to the plate by hosting the organization’s staff while the work was being done to complete the Stanley R. Crooks Tribal Leader Conference Center, fostering a sense of Indian community in the nation’s capital.
“We stayed at the San Manuel building and we appreciated it,” Giles said in an interview, conducted last fall as the Navajo Nation was weighing its embassy plans.
“If they hadn’t been there,” Giles said of the San Manuel Band, “I don’t know how NIGA would have made it through.”
With another tribe moving into Capitol Hill, Giles was excited about the prospect of bolstering the Indian community even further. He noted that the Cherokee Nation is pushing to seat its own delegate, Kim Teehee, in the U.S. Congress, a promise that was guaranteed by treaty.
“If all four tribes united and organized and met, then that’s incredibly valuable exposure for all of Indian Country,” Giles said of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Navajo and San Manuel presence on Capitol Hill. In terms of citizenship, the Cherokee Nation and the Navajo Nation are the two largest tribes in the U.S.
Further away from Capitol Hill is the Embassy of Tribal Nations, home to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). The property is located at 1516 P Street NW, in an area known for housing embassies of numerous foreign nations.
Several Indian advocacy organizations are located in D.C. They include the Native American Rights Fund and the National Indian Education Association, both of which rent space from NCAI at 1516 P Street NW; the National American Indian Housing Council; the National Council of Urban Indian Health; and NAFOA, founded as the Native American Finance Officers Association.
The nation’s capital, located in the homelands of the Piscataway peoples, is home to about 1,900 American Indians and Alaska Natives, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many are employees of the federal government — the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission are headquartered in D.C., while others work in the legal and lobbying field, along with the tribal advocacy organizations.
“When the Navajo Nation Council created the Navajo Nation Washington Office in 1984, Navajo leaders envisioned someday planting the Navajo flag on Capitol Hill,” said Santee Lewis, executive director of the office.. “Located across the street from Spirit of Justice Park, behind the House of Representatives, the property has been a family home since it was built and the Navajo Nation will be just it’s third owner.”
“This is an investment for our future generations,” Lewis said.
According to the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, the owners of 11 D Street SE paid $16,784.02 in property taxes in 2020. In 2019, the owners paid $15,659.88.
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