Navajo-Hopi land compromise is near

  • Navajos Jack and Bessie Hatathlie live on disputed land

    David E. Nelson
 

HOPI PARTITIONED LANDS, Ariz. - For more than a century, the Navajo and Hopi Indian tribes have been battling over the rights to this desert land.

Since 1882, when President Chester A. Arthur set aside reservation land for the Hopis that was already inhabited by Navajos, the issue of who belongs here has soured relations between the tribes.

A 1974 congressional act that divided nearly 2 million acres shared by the tribes did little to resolve the matter. Most of the Navajos and all Hopis living in the area have moved. Some 250 traditional Navajo families claiming religious ties to the land refuse to relocate, however, locking the tribes in bitter stalemate.

But now a settlement of the conflict may be under way.

A vast majority of the Navajo families remaining on Hopi land have accepted a lease agreement that would let them stay where they are. The ratification by 82 percent of the families who voted on the issue late May is a major breakthrough in a three-year settlement effort, and possibly a historic turning point in the longstanding dispute.

"People are very tired," says Betty Tso, who lives with her Navajo family in Mosquito Springs in the northern part of the Hopi reservation. "The living situation is so bad and so deteriorated at this point that people want change."

Tso was referring to the court-ordered building freeze that has hampered development in the disputed area for several decades. Many Navajos live cramped into small, patched-up quarters that would remind one of Third World shantytown dwellings were they not surrounded by endless range, canyons and big sky.

"I feel the Hopis have come a long way," Tso says of the Hopi lease offer.

Frances Bahe of Teesto, a mainly Navajo community in the southeastern corner of the Hopi nation, wants a better future for her children and grandchildren.

"You think of what we've been going through, how long we've been suffering for - we want this stopped somehow," Bahe says.

Under the lease agreement, each family would be given a three-acre home site with additional land for farming and grazing. The lease would be part of a settlement hammered out by attorneys for the families, the two tribes and the federal government.

A final settlement package, which must be approved by Congress, could involve compensation to the Hopi Tribe worth millions of dollars and thousands of acres in northern Arizona.

Peter Steenland, who heads the federal mediation team, says the U.S. Department of Justice expects to start negotiating compensation for the Hopis with the two tribes later this summer.

An earlier, highly controversial deal that collapsed last year offered the Hopis $15 million and nearly half a million acres of public and private land in northern Arizona. The plan caused an outcry among non-Indians, who pledged to fight any transfer of public land to an Indian tribe.

Steenland says the framework of that plan will still be used, albeit with certain changes and with plenty of input from the Arizona public.

It's not a surprise the Hopi Tribe is looking for more land.

For a century now, the Hopis have sought to regain land they say is rightfully theirs. Encircled by the large Navajo reservation, the now 10,000-member tribe says it's fighting for cultural survival.

Members of the Hopi Tribe, a tight-knit and highly religious pueblo people, perform their ancient rain ceremonies on dusty plazas that are hundreds of years old. From their villages atop three mesas, they have a grand view of the land area that more recently has become home also to the Navajos.

Although intermarriage between the tribes is common, Hopis will often speak with bitterness about what they see as Navajo infringement on Hopi life and culture.

"The United States and Navajo Nation have worked to take away our aboriginal land base," Hopi Chairman Ferrell Secakuku said in a statement last month. "Over time the land we have been allowed has shrunk from 17 million to 1.5 million acres. Their actions have not changed our birthright."

Like the Hopis, the Navajo relocation resisters claim religious ties to the land where they graze their sheep, gather herbs and perform ceremonies. To break up and move from the place where your umbilical cord is buried and the bones of your ancestors rest is worse than dying, traditional Navajos explain.

Tso says it's time to move beyond the squabble of who arrived in northern Arizona first and recognize that both tribes have rights to the land. That requires a mutual learning process that goes beyond signing papers, she adds.

"This is not about whose religion is greater, it's about accommodating one another," she says.

The parties' willingness to seek a compromise comes as a bittersweet victory for Lee Phillips, a Flagstaff attorney who has spent the past three years negotiating an alternative to forced relocation.

Phillips came to Arizona fresh out of law school in the early 1980s to devote his time to the relocation dilemma. He believes his Navajo clients don't have much of a choice at this point.

Several attempts to get the Hopis to agree to a land exchange that would place all Navajo communities on the Hopi reservation under Navajo jurisdiction have failed. Efforts to repeal the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, known as the relocation act, were also unsuccessful.

Unless the parties can agree on a settlement that keeps the disputed lands under Hopi control, his clients can look forward to a long litigation process that probably would not offer anything better than what they already have, Phillips says.

"There are always going to be hurdles when you're dealing with three governments and 300 individual families," he says, "but I have to feel there's a way to get this thing resolved."

Karin Schill writes in Flagstaff, Arizona.

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