Imagine waking up one morning and discovering you're an illegal alien.
That's essentially what
happened 23 years ago to more than 10,000 Navajos and 100 Hopis
when Congress passed Public Law 93-531 - the Navajo-Hopi Land
The bill was meant to reverse
centuries of Navajo encroachment on Hopi land and to clarify
reservation boundaries so millions of mineral-rich acres in
northern Arizona - land called the Joint Use Area - could be leased
for coal, uranium and other minerals. Instead, with more than a
thousand Navajos still refusing to leave Hopi land, the land
dispute has continued unabated.
once again last fall to settle the matter by passing the 1996
Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act. Under that legislation, all
Navajos remaining on Hopi land had to either sign a 75-year lease
with the Hopi tribe by March 31 or relocate. Beginning on April 1,
those who refuse either option will be forcibly removed from their
Hopi Tribal Chairman Ferrell Secakuku has
firmly refused pleas to postpone the deadline. "We are offering the
lease agreement now," he says. "If they don't sign by March 31,
that means they are trespassers on our land. That means they are
facing forced eviction."
The 1,000 or so Navajos
still living on Hopi Partitioned Land - land allocated to the Hopis
in 1973 by PL 93-531 - are split over whether to sign the
accommodation agreement. Those in favor say the agreement may be
the only possible solution to a protracted struggle that has
already cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
The agreement grants Navajos 75-year leases for
three-acre homesites as well as the right to graze sheep and to
pray - as long as they apply for a permit from the Hopi government.
If 85 percent or more of the affected Navajos sign the lease, the
Hopi tribe will receive $50.2 million and 500,000 acres of land in
trust from the federal government.
was crafted in part by Lee Brooke Phillips, the lead attorney for
Navajo resisters in a 1988 lawsuit. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit,
including Navajo elder Jenny Manybeads, who is now 111 years old,
argued that removing them from the land would destroy their ancient
ceremonial connection to the land and therefore their right to
freely exercise their religion. After U.S. District Court Judge
Earl Carroll dismissed the case in 1989, the 9th Circuit Court of
Appeals ordered the two tribes, the Navajo families and the U.S.
government to find another solution. The result of those
negotiations is the 1996 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act and the
current accommodation agreement.
officials believe the agreement is more than generous. The tribe
has long held that the Navajos stole the land in question and that
the courts and Congress trampled Hopi rights when they gave Navajos
more than one-third of the tribe's original rectangular 2.5
Some young Hopis would
like to see a mass eviction.
should be 75 seconds," said Clifford Balenquah, a governor of one
of the Hopi villages, in a recent story in the tribe's
Still, hundreds of Navajos have
refused to sign the new agreement. Many feel betrayed by Phillips
and by Navajo Nation President Albert Hale, who initially supported
the agreement. They do have support, however, within the Navajo
Nation Council. The council unanimously opposes forced eviction,
and has asked the Hopi tribe to extend the deadline.
Navajo critics say the new agreement is
oppressive. It forces them to live under Hopi jurisdiction without
the right to vote, forbids any Navajo burial on Hopi land and
punishes praying without a permit as a misdemeanor
Leaving the land is also not a viable
option, they say. Relocation has disrupted their homes and the
subsistence economy based on sheep herding and rug weaving. And the
people who have moved are falling to depression, alcoholism and
suicide at rates far higher than the reservation
Resisters hope that Judge Carroll will
rule the agreement is not a "fair" and "reasonable" settlement of
their religious freedom lawsuit, known as the Manybeads case. "How
can the judge decide that this is a fair and reasonable settlement
of the Manybeads case when the 18 surviving members of the original
47 plaintiffs are all opposed to the agreement?" asks their
attorney, Bruce Ellison.
But the deadline is here
and there's been no word yet from the judge. In recent weeks, the
number of Navajos who have signed a lease has jumped from five to
more than 60.
What will happen to those who don't
sign by March 31? Secakuku has said Hopi rangers will evict Navajo
resisters beginning April 1 and continuing through the year 2000.
Meanwhile, prayers continue on a daily basis across the Hopi
Partitioned Lands, and Navajo elders say they want desperately to
reamin and pass on their homes to future generations.
"There's a lot of fear right now, a lot of
confusion," says Lenora Hatathlie from Coal Mine Mesa, one of the
communities facing relocation. "These old ladies can be told that
this is the deadline and that this is the law. But they are going
to fight to stay. They won't just quietly follow the police into a
"Many of us will die before we allow the
profaning of what we know to be good, just and holy," says Navajo
elder Roberta Blackgoat. "The Creator is the only one who is going
to relocate us."
Cate Gilles writes for
the Navajo Times in Window Rock,