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Bennett Freeze escrow money goes to Navajo Finance Committee

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - Navajo people living in the so-called ''Bennett Freeze'' area are one step closer to accessing funds to help renovate, and in some cases rebuild or modernize, their homes.

In some extreme cases, residents there are missing parts of their roofs, have broken windows, and have no electricity or running water. And many rely on a wood stove as their sole source of heat, while others cook over an open fire.

Roman Bitsuie, executive director of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission, said that he and his staff reached a resolution in mid-January to tap $11.9 million that has accrued in an account held by the Interior Department Office of the Special Trustee for the past 40 years, the duration of the Bennett Freeze.

The funds must be split evenly between the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe, per the November 2006 intergovernmental compact that lifted the freeze.

Next, the resolution goes before the Navajo Division of Finance; and once approved, Interior can release those funds under the supervision of the BIA, said Omar Bradley, regional director of the BIA's Navajo Regional Office in Gallup, N.M. ''We want to make sure a proper distribution is being done,'' he said.

Bitsuie said he was unclear on when the funds will be made available to the Bennett Freeze area.

The Bennett Freeze, enacted in 1966 by then-U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett, was supposed to be a short-term fix for litigation that started in 1958. At issue was the ownership of 1.5 million acres of land that constituted the Bennett Freeze area of the Navajo/Hopi reservations in northeastern Arizona, according to Interior reports.

Years later, the land being disputed between the tribes was reduced to 700,000 acres.

The ban restricted the renovation of homes, including the addition of water and electrical lines, and prohibited most infrastructure improvement to the area unless approved by the Hopi government. From there, development slowed to a snail's pace. Some people took risks and renovated without Hopi approval, sources said.

According to a nonprofit group called the Forgotten People of the Bennett Freeze Area, not much has changed since the freeze was lifted. In fact, board members say that people in dire need of home repairs are being turned away, and told by their local housing chapters there are no funds for improvements.

When Elsie Elthie, a board member of the Forgotten People, heard the news about the recent funding, she said, ''Now let us put it to good use.''

While the news stirred some optimism in Elthie, she noted that the funds seemed like a far cry from the $50 million reported in the Arizona Republic newspaper in November 2006.

Billy Reese Kee, chairman of the Forgotten People and a resident of the Bennett Freeze area, said the group's attorney, James Zion, had written letters on behalf of the group to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., in regards to the location of the $50 million, or any funds earmarked for Bennett Freeze residents. To date, the group has not received a response.

For the past 15 years, the Forgotten People have advocated on behalf of the Navajo people on land use issues, and are in the process of creating a community development corporation with the help of outside sources.

The group recently disputed the 2006 intergovernmental compact reached between the two tribes. Kee said the compact left no room for Bennett Freeze residents to file a lawsuit if they felt their rights were being violated, but a November 2007 ruling by the Navajo Supreme Court lifted that restriction.

Like Kee, Elthie grew up in the Bennett Freeze zone and worries about the people there who are in need of immediate assistance. ''There are people that need help today,'' she said.

In an effort to assess the area's needs, the BIA granted the Navajo Nation $1 million for a one-year study on how the tribe should develop the area. But Elthie said that money should be applied to help those in immediate need of better housing. ''It completely blows my mind,'' she said. ''We already know what the needs of the people are.''

Meanwhile, Bitsuie said the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission is trying to tap funds for immediate assistance while waiting on the release of the trustee money. ''There are problems with assistance,'' he said. ''While that money is being processed, we need to get some immediate relief for people in need.''

Earl Tulley, the spokesman for and director of the division of construction for the Navajo Housing Authority, said the NHA is seeking funds from the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said there is more than $86 million in funds to support tribal housing projects.

Tulley grew up in Navajo country and said that the people living in the Bennett Freeze area have strong ties to the land, and many have never know what it has been like to have running water, electricity and other modern conveniences that most people take for granted.

''When they get finished making improvements, the people living there are going to be very mindful of the changes,'' he said. ''People still haul water.''

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. and Hopi Tribe Chairman Benjamin Nuvamsa could not be reached for comment.