Albion Monitor /News

Deadline Looms in U.S.-Native Standoff

by Terril L. Shorb
Special to the Monitor

Hundreds of Navajos have lived there for generations
PHOENIX -- Tensions are rising in Northcentral Arizona as a Navajo group faces a March 31st deadline to abandon or lease their long-disputed land or face forcible eviction by authorities.

The deadline was set by the "1996 Navajo Hopi Land Settlement Act," passed by Congress in September of last year and signed by President Clinton in October. At the time, Congressional leaders hailed the Act as a promise of a just end to the controversy over settlement patterns on the land, known as the Hopi Partitioned Lands (HPL).

Hundreds of Navajos have lived there for generations and the accommodations agreement offers them only two options: move, or sign the agreement and secure a 75-year lease to remain on Hopi lands.

One of their concerns with the agreement is that it prohibits burial on the land -- a key aspect of Dine tradition
Leaving the land was unacceptable to some Navajo families who had previously filed a suit (1988: Manybeads vs. U.S.) to that effect. That suit alleges that Navajos forced to relocate would be denied religious freedom, due to practices which tie them inextricably to the land.

During hearings on the agreement before Federal District Judge Earl Carroll in late February, attorneys for the Navajos living on the HPL said, "The Navajo religious practices are foreign and difficult to understand. Their religion is the land."

Judge Carroll has to decide if the agreement satisfies the HPL Navajo's claim, or "certify" their suit, which means that they can proceed in court. The judge had asked the Hopi tribal council for an extension of the March 31 deadline to study Navajo religious claim, but on Wednesday, his office told the Albion Monitor that the Council turned down his request and the judge will make no ruling before the end of the month.

Hopi Tribal Chairman Ferrell Secakuku said of the Hopi Council decision to deny the extension, "The time for discussing the terms of the agreement has already expired. The only decision to be made at this point is the decision of individual Navajo families as to whether they wish to remain on Hopi land under the terms of the accommodations agreement or whether they wish to be relocated off of those lands."

To date, some Navajo families have signed the accommodations agreement while others hold out hope that they will not have to. One of their concerns with the agreement is that it prohibits burial on the land -- a key aspect of Dine tradition.

The latest of more than 125 years worth of U.S. government attempts to arbitrate disputes
The land issue is so complex that it has divided communities and even families.

Though there has been no direct violence associated with the approaching March 31 deadline, a bomb threat on March 4 emptied classrooms at a school in the heart of the Hopi reserve. No bomb was found, to the relief of the 204 students and staff who were evacuated. Authorities did not comment on speculations that the threat may have been tied to the land dispute.

The Land Settlement Act is the latest of more than 125 years worth of U.S. government attempts to arbitrate tribal disputes over settlement and use of nearly one million acres within and adjoining the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

Individuals of both tribes express a variety of opinions on the land dispute which was initially fueled by Spanish and later Anglo invasions of the Southwest.

Says LeNora Fulton, a Navajo Tribal Council delegate from Fort Defiance, "I know we can resolve any issue, any concern as Hopi and Navajo People, if we can come together, leaving out the lawyers and outside interest parties and talking together as neighbors. The families of both our great Indian nations have already been united and from these come our relationships as parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, children, brother and sister."

Others call the Hopi actions an "act of war." In a March 13 letter to the Navajo Times, one man wrote:

"On (April 1), the peaceful, unarmed Dine of the Hopi Partitioned Land, with most in the Big Mountain area, will be forcibly evicted by a specially created multijurisdictional task force authorized by the Hopi Tribal Council and headed by the combat-trained U.S. Marshals Office (Calvary). The task force itself is well-equipped and armed to the teeth, but nontheless, the tribe expects its operations to last '90 days.'"

The author Mervyn Tilden, of Big Mountain AZ, further asserts that when the Hopi Tribal Council denied the request of HPL Navajos for an extension of the March 31 deadline, that denial was "clearly an act of war." Tilden wrote that the underlying factor that is behind the relocation is "(the) coal, uranium, water, and other natural resources that we live on top of which is coveted by all."

An update on this dispute will appear in the Albion Monitor shortly. For more background and maps, see this Native American resource page.

Accounts published by Navajo Times and the Hopi Tutuveni, newspapers that serve Navajo and Hopi reservation communities, contributed to this story

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Albion Monitor March 24, 1997 (

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