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How Many Lawyers Does it Take to Register a Business on the Navajo Nation?

Published in the Navajo Times on August 6, 2020

This isn’t a lawyer joke, and the answer is two lawyers: one an enrolled member who practices in Navajo Nation and owns a business, and the other a former Navajo Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyer. Yes, you read that correctly, but it bears repeating. It took two lawyers to figure out what paperwork to fill out, prepare, and send to the Division of Economic Development (DED) to register a business in the Navajo Nation. This was at the beginning of July and I have not heard back yet.

Let me start by saying that I have a business degree, a law degree, and a master’s degree in international economic law and policy. I am an attorney licensed to practice in state court and various tribal jurisdictions including the Navajo Nation. I own an LLC that is registered in Arizona, and I co-founded a non-profit corporation which I manage as the CEO. I did all the paperwork for those business entities myself and even obtained 501(c)(3) status for the non-profit corporation.

I’ve also advised and represented businesses on the Navajo Nation. Currently, I am writing my dissertation on revitalizing international trade among Native Nations; a core component of that dissertation involves using my legal and business experience and education to assess business environments on reservations and recommend solutions.

Two years ago, I tried to register my company (an Arizona LLC) in the Navajo Nation as a foreign LLC. Like a good attorney, I read the Navajo Nation business laws and visited the Navajo business website to get more information. I submitted my paperwork and did not hear back for some time so I called the DED. After speaking with a representative, I learned that I forgot the filing fee (my mistake) and there was an issue with my address.

Under the Navajo business laws, businesses on the Navajo Nation must have a statutory agent who lives on the reservation and has a reservation address. The issue? A lot of people living on the reservation don’t have street addresses but instead use a P.O. box. I learned that a P.O. box address was insufficient and I needed to submit my residential address. At this point, you’re probably wondering how do you submit a residential address when your hogan is located near mile marker ###, a mile from the highway, past the ditch, at the end of the dirt road, about 30 feet south of the sheep corral? Good question! I was informed that I needed to draw a map. So I did.

After submitting my map, I decided to call the DED again. I was questioned heavily regarding the accuracy of the map that I submitted and asked with skepticism if I actually lived on the reservation. I responded that the map I submitted was obtained via Google Maps. I made markings and notes on the map using a marker and even typed directions above it. How more accurate can you get? After convincing the DED that I indeed lived on the reservation, I was informed that it didn’t matter because I did not submit a refiling fee.

At that point, I decided to give up because my head was pounding after weeks of back and forth. There are points to be made, but the overarching one is this: when a Navajo person cannot get their business registered on the Navajo Nation, we have a big problem. Though it is not impossible, it certainly is a complicated and lengthy process.

The other day, I read an article in the July/August 2020 issue of Arizona Attorney Magazine, titled “Cracking the Code: Business Leasing on the Navajo Reservation.” It was written by two Navajo DOJ attorneys who were trying to “shine[] some light on the deep, dark woods of reservation leasing.” First, the title itself illustrates that we have a problem. Our Navajo people shouldn’t have to crack any code to start a business or navigate any “deep, dark woods.” At least, I didn’t have to when I registered my businesses with the state; in fact, most moms and pops do so on their own without having to crack a code or shine a light.

The article claims that the Navajo Nation “has worked to create a streamlined business site lease process.” But in reality, there is nothing streamlined about any tribal business site leasing process, and the fault is on federal Indian law, the BIA, and patriarchal congressional legislation. Regardless, the article pinpoints issues that come later on down the road in setting up a business. You’re lucky if you can get to the business site leasing stage because that means you’ve actually figured out how to register your business.

To the DOJ attorneys and DED, you can shine some light on the deep, dark woods all you want, but they will still be deep, dark woods. The system needs to be fixed. Start with the registration process and the outdated laws. Some laws don’t apply; others don’t exist. If you don’t believe what I’m saying, try registering a business yourself.

Imagine for a moment if this process was simple enough to allow flea market vendors and jewelers to register as a business. Business would be booming on the Navajo Nation! Most wouldn’t even require a business site lease.

Try eliminating the paper trail by accepting online payments and paperwork. Money orders and certified mail is a thing of the past. Oh and please, answer your phones and emails!

Another option: issue an RFP or commission a study of the Navajo business laws; hire my company; and we’ll help streamline the system. Isn’t that why you paid for my education through the Navajo Nation Scholarship Office? You told the younger generation to go out and get educated. We did. Our degrees belong to you. You also told us to bring the knowledge back to the people. We’re trying to; we’re knocking on the door. Are you going to answer?

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