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The "Bennett Thaw", at last

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Jodi Peterson | May 19, 2009 04:15 PM

Last week, President Obama signed legislation putting an end to a time warp in Indian land. For more than 40 years, Navajos and Hopi living near Tuba City, Ariz., had been prohibited from building new roads or new homes. Nor could they improve existing homes, or even install electricity and running water when those services became available. 

The ban was the result of a 1966 lawsuit filed by the Hopi Tribe, who had long sought to add 1.5 million acres of Navajo land to their existing 1.8 million acre holdings. Robert Bennett, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the time, decreed that until the claim was settled, the roughly 8,000 people living in the disputed area had to "freeze" any new development.

But none of the parties involved could have had any idea of just how long that settlement would take. In 1994, we reported that an agreement was nigh. In 2000, talks again got underway, and some land was removed from the freeze. In 2006, a district court ordered the lifting of the "Bennett Freeze" and returned most of the land to the Navajos. But it took an act of Congress this spring to make it official, by repealing the statute that created the freeze and releasing federal funds to begin rehabilitating the affected area.

Undoing the damage will be no small task, though. Many families have moved away, and the disputed area is sunk in deep poverty. Indian Country Today reports:

“No business has gone in there – it’s just really barren,” said George Hardeen, a spokesman for the Navajo Nation. “There’s no employment there, no schools there – no bricks and mortar, so to speak.”

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