In early September, the roar of bulldozers and chainsaws in the remote desert of the Hopi Reservation gave modern resonance to an ancient feud.
Hopi officials destroyed a site sacred to Navajo Sun Dancers, even removing the site's "Tree of Life." The act was the latest in more than a century of dispute over land shared by the larger but more recently arrived Navajo, and the smaller Hopi Tribe, whose ancestors have inhabited the region for thousands of years.
Big Mountain, Ariz., the location of the Sun Dance site, is part of the Hopi Reservation, but is sacred to both tribes. Conflict over the area escalated in 1974, when Congress divided 2 million acres of disputed Hopi land between the tribes, placing Big Mountain on the Hopi side and forcing the relocation of both Hopi and Navajo.
Several Navajo families have resisted relocation and continue to live on Hopi land.
Claire Heywood, of the Hopi Tribe, says that the Navajo on Hopi land are subject to the same regulations as the Hopi; for the past two years, she says, the Navajo have been holding gatherings at the Sun Dance site without a permit.
"We didn't target the site because it was religious. It was because it was a gathering," says Heywood. She emphasizes that the Hopi Tribe was sensitive to the site's religious significance; a Hopi religious man performed a ceremony there to protect it from desecration before dismantling it.
The Navajo Sun Dancers say removal of the sacred site overstepped the bounds of normal law enforcement. "The reason I'm affected," says Klee Benally, whose family hosted the Sun Dance, "is that someone's church was destroyed."
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