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Dispute continues over Navajo/Hopi settlement

WASHINGTON – The good news about the prolonged Navajo/Hopi land settlement process is that the tribes are no longer at daggers drawn over it, the legal issues have been settled and fewer than 100 Navajo families on Hopi lands are either leasing the lands or preparing to relocate. Relocating them will complete the designated mission of the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation, which was to relocate thousands of Navajo families from Hopi land and hundreds of Hopi families from Navajo land. The Navajo Nation wholly surrounds the much smaller Hopi homeland in east-central Arizona.

The many-faceted dispute began with Congress and to Congress it has returned. Its subject now is how the federal government should disengage from the relocation process and its aftermath.

Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., has emerged as a leading backer of the view that relocated Navajo families deserve a well-planned transition that includes an evaluation of the damages wrought by relocation. Navajo testimonials at a June 20 hearing of the House Resources Committee made it pretty clear, to a layman’s sense of it if not to a perfect certainty, that some redress would be sought for the damages.

In the words of one witness, redress would take the form of a “mitigation program.” Renzi’s proposal, a draft bill that has yet to be introduced in the House of Representatives, would also lift the so-called “Bennett Freeze,” a bureaucracy-imposed ban on construction in a joint-use area that has kept a stranglehold on Navajo prosperity there since 1966.

Renzi’s gorge rose as he described Navajo needs in the Bennett Freeze area. Families have not been able to repair their homes, install public works infrastructure or lay down roads. Development in the Bennett Freeze area is “rehabilitation” in Renzi’s lexicon.

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In the view of another Washington policy professional who has visited the Bennett Freeze area but declined to be named because the issue isn’t a current responsibility, the prospect of early government withdrawal from the aftermath of relocation merited one word: “Preposterous.”

The Senate has passed Senate Bill 1003. Among other things, it would shut down the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation in 2008, transferring its vestigial responsibilities to the BIA. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, introduced S. 1003 and has given two standing answers to just about every plea entered for more time to do right by relocated Navajo families: too much time and too much money.

In broad outline, McCain’s objections aren’t easily refuted. The dispute over a Navajo or Hopi presence on lands governed by the other tribe has played out over more than 100 years, with multiple missed deadlines for resolution. The original estimated cost of relocating Navajo and Hopi families was $40 million, but actual expenditures by the ONHIR exceed $480 million, much of it spent on housing for relocated families.

But a finer grain of detail would also note that the federal government created the problem when it created a Hopi reservation for Navajo inhabitants, compounded it by creating districts that were further refined by courts into a joint-use area and then vastly underestimated the number of Navajo and Hopi families that would have to be relocated, as well as the harsh impacts of relocation upon them – in a Navajo estimation, that is. Hopi Chairman Ivan Sidney staunchly defended the 1974 law as “a watershed for the Hopi” in that it halted encroachment by the Navajo Nation that surrounds them and restored full Hopi jurisdiction over Hopi lands.

The Hopi support S. 1003, though resisting any BIA role in favor of congressional appropriations that would enable ONHIR to fulfill its mission properly by termination in 2008. The Navajo look to Renzi for legislation that would evaluate the impact of relocation, prepare the ground for a “mitigation program” and extend the tenure of ONHIR.

The two tribal leaders, Sidney of the Hopi and President Joe Shirley Jr. of the Navajo, were notably friendly in reference to one another and agreed to work together toward a proper completion of the relocation saga.