Magazine article Insight on the News

Finding the Navajo a Place in the Sun

Magazine article Insight on the News

Finding the Navajo a Place in the Sun

Article excerpt

Summary: A new proposal from Washington has some observers optimistic about ending a long-standing land dispute in Arizona between the Hopi and 250 Navajo families. But the proposal also has stirred some dust: Neighboring landowners, outdoors enthusiasts and even some tribe members are balking.

Stanley Bahnimptewa takes off his sunglasses and vigorously rubs his eyes, trying to gain a few moments of relief from the cataracts that are slowly robbing him of his sight. The kikmongwi, or religious leader, of the ancient Hopi city of Oraibi in northern Arizona, Bahnimptewa is holding court on the subject of 253 Navajo families living on territory that falls in his aboriginal jurisdiction. "That has always been the land of our people, of the Hopi," he says, straightening out his battered, coal-stained Cleveland Indians baseball cap. "The Navajos must move off our land."

In Mosquito Springs, the remote strip of land 50 miles northwest of Oraibi that Bahnimptewa is referring to, Mae Tso sits at a loom in the traditional hogan house her family has lived in for four generations. For almost 20 years Tso, a spiritual leader of the Navajo, has been pressured to move off what the federal government now calls Hopi Partition Land. She says she's not moving anywhere.

But the standoff between the two Indian leaders is more than a simple dispute over land: It has developed into a bitter and complex confrontation that has embroiled state and federal authorities, private landowners, environmentalists, and warring factions within the tribes themselves. Angry accusations of racism and forced relocation are being thrown around, and a proposed multimillion-dollar solution to the dispute is only making people on every side of the dispute angrier. "If the government thinks they can just come in and take away public land without a fight," says Dayle Henson of the Arizona Coalition of Public Lands, "then they've got another think coming."

But the tug-of-war over the land is nothing new - it's been going on since 1882, when President Chester A. Arthur signed an executive order that set aside approximately 4,000 square miles of land in northern Arizona "for the use and occupancy of Moquis (Hopis) and other such Indians as the Secretary of the Interior may see fit to settle thereon."

At the time, about 1,800 Hopi and 300 Navajo lived on the land. By the 1930s, Navajo within the boundaries outnumbered Hopi by 3-to-1, and the government had given much of the land surrounding the area to the Navajo tribe. Rather than give the burgeoning Navajo any more privately owned land, the Roosevelt administration approved the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Known as the "New Deal for Indians," the act called for the creation of tribal constitutions and tribal governments. More importantly, it extended the Navajo boundaries into the land that had been set aside for the Hopi.

The Hopi reacted, predictably, by suing to regain control of their 1882 lands. In 1962, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Arizona ruled in Healing vs. Jones that the Hopi would have exclusive use of all land in a partition within the 1882 area known as District 6, while the rest of the land, called the Joint Use Area, was to be shared by the two tribes.

Not surprisingly, giving the tribes joint use of the land did not stop the legal feuding. The Hopi, who live above the desert on mesas in tightly packed villages, complained that the nomadic Navajo's sheep herds were trespassing on their property Unable to come up with a resolution themselves, the tribes turned again to the U.S. government. The result was the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, which gave the District Court of Arizona the right to literally draw a line through the Joint Use Area. This Solomonic decision left 3,500 Navajo on Hopi Partition Land and 40 Hopi on Navajo Partition Land.

The 1974 act also brought about a brand new federal agency: the Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation Commission. …

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