Hopis tell Navajos: "Lease or leave'

  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 Settlement Act.


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.


Congress tried 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 homes.


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.


The agreement 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.


Hopi tribal 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 million-acre reservation.


Some young Hopis would like to see a mass eviction.


"Seventy-five years should be 75 seconds," said Clifford Balenquah, a governor of one of the Hopi villages, in a recent story in the tribe's newspaper.


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 offense.


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 average.


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 van."


"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





Cate Gilles writes for the Navajo Times in Window Rock, Arizona.