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Bennett Freeze Residents: Politicians Want to Wash Their Hands of Problems

A Congressional delegation recently visited the impoverished Bennett Freeze area shared by the Navajo and Hopi tribes in Arizona, promising solutions.
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A Congressional delegation recently visited the impoverished borderlands shared by the Navajo and Hopi tribes in Arizona, promising solutions. But residents of the troubled area worry that the politicians just want to wash their hands of problems the government caused.

Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, D-AZ, was joined by Ken Calvert, R-CA, Mike Simpson, R-ID, Tom Cole, R-ID, and Betty McCollum, D-MN on a three-day tour of the area known as Bennett Freeze in late January. All of the representatives are members of the House Appropriations Committee.

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“It was a historic trip,” Kirkpatrick said. “I don’t recall ever having that many members of Congress in Hopi and Navajo, just listening and hearing their concerns.”

The idea is to evaluate conditions in Navajo and Hopi Partition Lands, created by the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974. The act split up territory the tribes had both claimed, and after its passage, numerous practical problems arose. Among them were how to help families of each tribe relocate to the right side of the line, and how to arbitrate control by the host tribes of the non-member families left behind. Some of these issues were settled in court cases into the 1980s.

In order to smooth the relocations and associated problems, Congress created the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (ONHIR). The Flagstaff-based office still exists today, far outlasting the 1970s vision of a five-year timeline. Now, over three decades and more than $564 million later, members of Congress are wondering what they need to do to finish the job.

A recent Department of Interior review of ONHIR revealed that it has moved 3,589 people. More than 100 people are awaiting relocation, and 65 are awaiting a decision on whether they’re eligible for relocation benefits. Nearly 300 people are appealing their denial of benefits. At today’s prices, a single relocation costs about $150,000. But the expense of the program doesn’t end there, partly because some people were placed into substandard homes early in the program. Those people were a major focus of the Congressional tour.

“It was really just a listening tour,” Kirkpatrick said. “We wanted to hear from people about problems they’re experiencing.”

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She noted that many relocated people seem happy, but there are a handful of “very serious issues.” For example, the ground is shifting underneath homes built for 24 relocated families in one small community called East Mill.

But Percy Deal, Navajo, is a resident of the Hardrock Chapter that borders the Hopi Reservation and lost two-thirds of its land base when the boundaries were finalized. The Congressional tour did not include Hardrock, and Deal believes the December report by the Interior Department – with which the Congressional delegation was prepped – has overlooked some of the issues.

“The report only offers options to end the relocation program in the shortest period of time and with the least amount of money,” Deal complains.

The options range in terms of annual cost, duration and methods. One option, for example, entails moving 20 families a year at an annual cost of $8.2 million over 10 years. Another option proposes moving 70 families a year for three years, with a total cost of $52 million. Other options propose buyouts in lieu of relocations, or a combination of buyouts and relocations. The report also considered, but doesn’t advocate, turning OHNIR’s operations over to the BIA or the Navajo Nation.

Deal says none of the paths forward contemplate the full reality of life in the Partition Lands. “Should Congress accept any of the options, it is washing its hands of all the other problems it has created,” he said.

Deal and fellow residents of the Hardrock Community have responded with their own report to Congress, in which they point out that when residents of the already densely populated part of the Hardrock Chapter made room for relocated families, it became difficult to ranch and farm. Beyond that, basic life needs have never been addressed. “Many of the hosting families do not have power and water,” the Hardrock report notes. “Most families still haul their water from miles out. The Chapter is aware there are … homeless [people] of all ages. Some are young parent(s) with children going from home to home.”

Kirkpatrick said shortly after the January 24-25 tour that the Appropriations Committee would be brainstorming and “mulling over some changes. Chairman Calvert said he would work with me on solutions in legislation.”

Deal has said he hopes representatives of Navajo Partition Lands, including Hardrock Chapter residents, will be invited to speak if and when the Appropriations Committee holds hearings. Kirkpatrick’s spokeperson, Jennifer Johnson, said on Friday that so far, no timeline for action has been set.