Magazine article The Nation

Navajo Relocation; Indian Land, White Greed

Magazine article The Nation

Navajo Relocation; Indian Land, White Greed

Article excerpt


Indian Land, White Greed

July 7, 1986, was the Federal deadline for abouta hundred Hopi and more than 10,000 Navajo Indians to vacate the Arizona land they had shared for generations but that the government had ordered split between them in 1974, ostensibly to settle a long dispute between the two tribes. Many feared that the dreaded day would end in violence. About 1,200 to 1,500 traditional, sheepherding Navajo families still remained in the former Joint Use Area (J.U.A.), stubbornly refusing to accept that they were living on Hopi land. At Big Mountain, a stronghold of the resistance, members of the American Indian Movement holed up in a survival camp and were ready, as Navajo AIM leader Larry Anderson had told me the preceding April, "to stand by our elders in any way necessary.' Senator Barry Goldwater, a staunch advocate of the partition legislation, had declared that he would have no objection to summoning the National Guard to take care of troublemakers. Between Hopis and Navajos, who had no dispute until Congress intervened, accusations flew about maimed cattle and burned hogans.

In fact, however, it had been increasingly obvious formonths that this was one deadline the government would not be able to enforce. The Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation Commission (commonly called the F.R.C., for Federal relocation commission), located in Flagstaff, Arizona, had managed to move only about 4,100 people into replacement housing. The New Lands--365,000 acres south of the reservation, near Chambers, which the Navajo tribe had acquired by December 1985 as a prospective homesite for about 1,500 relocatees--were undeveloped except for one uninhabited house and a well that pumped water of dubious quality. So July 7 passed quietly for the Navajos of the J.U.A.

Perhaps the most frequent visitors these days to BigMountain and other J.U.A. settlements where juniper smoke still curls from the hogans are Bureau of Indian Affairs representatives, who have come to counsel people (some say harass) about the supposed benefits of moving to the New Lands. Although some members of Congress contend that relocation would provide the Indian people, as Goldwater had claimed in 1974, "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to better their living conditions,' it soon became apparent that transplanting self-sufficient sheepherders to tract housing in reservation border towns was going to create big problems.

In 1980 Congress tried to improve what was becoming atragic and, from the government's point of view, humiliating, situation. It passed an amendment to the Navajo-Hopi Relocation Act of 1974 that entitled the Navajo tribe to select up to 250,000 acres of public land in Arizona as compensation for the 900,000 acres they would lose to the Hopis. According to Kathy Helmer, the New Lands coordinator at the B.I.A., which along with the F.R.C. is responsible for developing the tract, the New Lands "provide an alternative for people who want to continue their rural life style.'

"Nobody knows what's going on around here,' saidWayne Lynch, a young Navajo-Anglo F.R.C. employee who lists among his responsibilities driving reporters and prospective homesteaders around the New Lands, repairing fences and "showing those government employees in their three-piece suits how to open a gate.' Early this year Lynch's pickup jounced this reporter over roads the oncoming spring was turning to muddy tracks. The wild, beautiful land looked innocent enough. Under turquoise skies, the dark junipers, spiky gray-green yucca and lime stalks of snakeweed contrasted sharply with the waters of the Rio Puerco, a shallow red river curling through high red banks. At the New Lands range unit the B.I.A. calls Little Silversmith, some half-dozen houses were in the early stages of construction.

In fact, the sluggish waters of the Rio Puerco are responsiblefor some of the government's difficulty in persuading families to move to the New Lands, where a total of twenty range units are planned. …

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