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Hopi lands and Big Mountain: misinformation is an issue

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Relocation of Indian people is always suspect and fraught with collective historical trauma. This is true for nearly every tribe in the hemisphere, but it holds especially in the extremely difficult case of the Navajo families at Big Mountain, which were found to be living on Hopi tribal lands.

To relocate Native people is a hugely serious question. Conflictive viewpoints are acute, severe. It is also reality that, for more than 20 years, the Hopi Tribe has pressed for its right to repossess all of its land base, a right to which most everyone in Indian country will generally agree, and relocation by the Big Mountain families became its policy.

These families also inherited a sense of discomfort, sometimes outrage, from generations of Hopi who have long complained of Navajo encroachment. Nevertheless, the pain of doubt is strong.

It is a difficult case because the Navajo families caught in the cross-lands conflict are decent, traditional people who had not bothered anyone and were living in a very isolated, largely self-sufficient environment when the reality of tribal jurisdiction, with its need for strict definition, caught up with them.

In the context of inter-tribal jurisdictional disputes, at least in North America, the Big Mountain case ranks among the most debated and contentious issues ever.

What makes it an even more complex case is that numerous organizations and cause-seeking entities, including the American Indian Movement as well as many non-Native organizations, law firms and individuals, have joined the fray. Thus the descriptions of positions and analysis of the Indian protagonists in the issue have been manipulated and misinterpreted by the many, who have used every form of media to seek support and recruit participants in their version of the cause.

Many issues have been folded into the fray, from the imperatives of energy development pushed by major corporations, to accusations of corruption and tribal council puppetry, to the long-standing impetus of the American government to destroy the spiritual bases and ways of life of Native peoples. A couple of basic realities have been lost as a result.

One: whose land is it? Tribal land rights always go first, in policy-making. This will seem harsh and it can be, but it is a fundamental right that if allowed breaching, spells the beginning of the end for tribal jurisdictional sovereignty. If the most obvious line of defense for Indian country is respect for tribal jurisdictions, any attack upon it will be easily dismissed.

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Two: the all-too-easy description of the Hopi tribal government as a puppet entity. The tendency here has been to deny the traditionalism within the tribal government. This assertion belies the reality on the ground at Hopi for at least the past decade. In fact, one of the truly outstanding stories of recent times has been the effort by the tribal government at Hopi to be more inclusive. This followed decades of much more authoritative and arrogant approaches and it signaled a serious change for the better.

By 1995, a strategic plan had emerged, called 'Hopi potskwaniat' in the tribal language. Stated Wayne Taylor, chairman at the time, the people 'wanted their government to be more like a Hopi.'

The conscious move to a more cooperative attitude by this recognizably Hopi approach to government has fostered a number of positive projects, some fueled by the outstanding work of the Hopi Foundation, that have tended to interweave with the tribal structure. A substantial community health initiative has come out of this partnership and other, fully independent projects, such as NativeSun (providing solar power units) and the Center for Prevention of Violence (providing mental health and other services to Central American ?migr?s), have benefited greatly as well from the more inclusive approach.

This is not to pretend that the Hopi tribal government, like all such governments created by the Indian Reorganization Act, does not suffer from bureaucracy, cronyism and other afflictions. But it is also more than that and its approach through several administrations has signaled a refreshing new direction.

No one can deny that the suffering inflicted by relocation is traumatic and completely unsavory. The move by the Hopi leadership to bulldoze a Sun Dance grounds was drastic and a huge public relations boondoggle. Yet it was also the result of their perceiving the gathering itself to be more political than community-based, and an approach that many Indian spiritual practitioners have suggested was geographically and culturally dislocated.

Beyond the basic Indian political supporters and the myriad non-Native organizations that hurled every imaginable insult at the Hopi government for it, the issue has not had traction, causing little response from within Indian country for the very reasons mentioned.

We sincerely wish a more equitable solution could have been found to accommodate the lives of traditional families, of whatever tribal origin. Relocation is truly a dirty word in Indian country. But certainly the highly conflictive approach that has tended to demonize the bulk of the Hopi people who support the need, indeed the obligation, of their government to assert sovereign jurisdiction over Hopi lands, brings no added humanity to bear on the issue.

In fact, when all is said and done, negotiations under the administration of former Hopi chairman Ferrell Secakaku, which were apparently conducted in a good faith, achieved a moderated solution in offering 75-year or 'life leases' that were accepted by a number of the affected families. Between the rock and the hard place, something had to give and that attempt to resolve this most difficult issue was perhaps as good a solution as could be had, under the circumstances.

Whatever one's position is regarding this unfortunate circumstance ? whether in agreement with the Navajo families or with the Hopi Council ? we should not allow glib-talking activists nor support organizations that have no tribal experience to frame the issues. This is one case where the legal process has provided reasonable definition.