The deep Southwestern drought has pitted tribe against tribe, as Hopi authorities backed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) impound hundreds of sheep and other livestock owned by Navajo who are grazing the animals on Big Mountain, which lies on Hopi Partition Land.
But Navajo ranchers in the area, many of them lifelong, elderly, pastoral people, are crying foul on methods that they say are harsh and unfair, even though the activity fits Hopi regulations’ definition of overgrazing. Moreover an activist group, Black Mesa Indigenous Support, has alleged that intimidation has been used in some cases.
Big Mountain lies just north of the Hopi Reservation on land that has historically been the subject of disputes between the two tribes. Termed Hopi Partition Land, Big Mountain was awarded to the Hopi people in a government-ordered land settlement in 1974. Despite several eviction attempts over the years, some extended Navajo families remain on Big Mountain, as they have for generations.
Clayton Honyumptewa, director of the Hopi Tribe’s Natural Resources Department, said the situation began when his staff made annual, reservation-wide livestock counts in mid-August. At that time, ranchers with livestock exceeding their permitted numbers were issued citations and notified that they needed to reduce their herds, Honyumptewa said. Violators were told they had 60 days to comply. Also, letters were sent out to each rancher deemed out of compliance, and additional notices were posted at local stores and post offices.
On October 20 Natural Resources staff rangers began impounding herds, starting with the three most excessive alleged violations, amounting to almost 200 sheep beyond permit limits. Two of the violators graze their sheep at Big Mountain, and the third was north and west, near a part of the reservation called Red Lake that is not on Hopi Partition Lands. According to protocol, the shepherds’ flocks are held until their owners can pay impoundment fees; reports of the fees vary from about $1,000 to $2,000. The shepherds are then being escorted as they transport the over-limit livestock off the Hopi reservation.
Honyumptewa said that as law enforcement officers, the rangers carry guns. But he said reports of intimidation are false. He maintains that the enforcement actions have been driven by resource concerns. He pointed out that the Hopi Reservation is surrounded by the Navajo Nation, and besides resident ranchers who are exceeding their permits, Navajo shepherds living in nearby areas are cutting fences to let their livestock trespass on Hopi lands.
“Our conditions out there are pretty bad,” he said. “We’ve had the drought for fifteen, sixteen years, and we haven’t had any rain or snow. Basically we’re trying to protect and conserve what resources we have left.”
A Hopi tribal press release issued on October 31 conveyed a similar sentiment.
“The Hopi call upon the Navajo Nation and its citizens to honor their agreements and join with the Hopi Tribe to protect our sacred lands by the continued and ongoing enforcement of the reasonable grazing regulations,” the statement read. “It is in the best interest of all livestock owners that we work together to preserve the natural resources for the benefit of all.”
But Nicole Horseherder, a Navajo resident of nearby Navajo Partition Lands, said the Hopi position isn’t so simple. Throughout the thorny decades when the land’s ownership was contested, the Navajo people on Big Mountain provided for themselves with their livestock, independently of any government rations or handouts. They know how to manage their herds, she said.
“It’s not our fault that the government, or the BIA, whoever you want to blame, dropped the ball on the resources so the land can’t support livestock and farming,” Horseherder said. “I disagree with the number. I disagree with the law. It’s a bogus regulation that they’re trying to enforce on people. They didn’t come through on their part. If they had, the land would be in better shape.”
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Speaker Pro Tem LoRenzo Bates issued a statement on October 30 demanding that the impoundments stop.
“Among many families, livestock is the main source of food,” Shelly said in the statement. “Resolve is what we all want.”
Bates pointed out that it was elders who are being hard-hit.
“We have heard the concerns of our people, particularly those of elderly Navajos who rely heavily on their livestock for their livelihood,” Bates said. “Impounding livestock of Navajo people is a deliberate violation of their rights to practice our culture and traditions and it must stop immediately.”
Sammie Biakeddy, a Navajo resident of Big Mountain, said he knows all three families whose herds have been impounded, all of them traditional Navajo sheepherders.
“They are being stewards of the land and livestock, have a spiritual calling and a way of life,” he said. “The Hopi rangers threaten to continue impounding livestock continually and spontaneously. This sub-human treatment of my people at Big Mountain and surrounding communities must stop.”