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Law melts away

WASHINGTON – Congress has wiped a 40-year-old federal law off the books that tribal leaders say has long prevented economic development in areas of the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

The law, known as the “Bennett Freeze,” went into effect in 1966 when Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett ordered a halt on development of a 1.5 million acre area located on the western boundary of the Navajo Nation.

After years of claims to the land from both Navajo and Hopi tribal members starting in 1934, the federal government came to believe that ownership was ambiguous. Policy makers thought the freeze would provide time to sort the situation out.

But what the freeze actually did, tribal leaders say, was prevent either tribe from developing the vast area of land. Thus, families moved away, leaving very few residents in the area to this day. Many of the ones who remained now live in intense poverty.

“No business has gone in there – it’s just really barren,” said George Hardeen, a spokesman for the Navajo Nation. “There’s no employment there, no schools there – no bricks and mortar, so to speak.”

Federal legislators have long known about the problem, but it was not until this spring that Congress decided to formally repeal the law. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz. and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have helped lead the way in the current session.

The House of Representatives voted unanimously April 21 to take the law off the books, following a similar move by unanimous consent in the Senate in March.

“I have been hearing about it for years,” Kirkpatrick said. “Especially [with regard to] problems with people not being able to repair their homes, and not having electricity or running water.”

Congressional action was partially spurred by judicial happenings from a few years back. U.S. District Judge Earl H. Carroll signed a court order in 2006 to remove the 40-year-old Bennett Freeze and to dispose of all claims of litigation between the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe involving the disputed land.

The Navajo and Hopi tribes then made a compromise that fit both their needs. A component of the truce promised no loss of Navajo land and no relocation. The Hopi Tribe had earlier received a ruling from a federal district court that held that the tribe was entitled to 62,000 acres.

Since then, the Bennett Freeze law has unofficially been ignored – but so has economic progress. There had also been general worry from tribal members that the law could be put back in place at any time.

“For the families who live in the former Bennett Freeze area, so long as the authority for the freeze remains in the U.S. Code, there also remains a fear that it could be re-imposed,” Raymond Maxx, former chair of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission, testified at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs meeting in May 2008. The commission is a Navajo entity that deals with Navajo-Hopi land dispute matters.

Some tribal leaders felt that by getting Congress to officially repeal the law, and take responsibility for its role in the longtime dispute would end up spurring the federal government into supporting new development on the lands.

“That is the hope,” Hardeen said. “The Bennett Freeze was the government’s making. It wasn’t the two tribes that imposed the development freeze. It was the federal government. And nobody could really do anything about it for all those 40 years.

“We’re hoping that the government will step up and help repair the damage that it created.”

Chris Stearns, a Navajo lawyer with Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker, who has worked on legal ramifications involving the law, said the repeal could result in economic progress.

“It would be nice if Congress paid some real attention to the economics of the situation now, rather than saying, ‘Okay, we’re done with it.’”

Kirkpatrick, for one, seems amenable. She is ready to help rehabilitate the area and its residents, promising to work to rebuild infrastructure needs, schools and to provide health care.

“I want to electrify Indian country and make sure that people have running water,” she said. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask in the 21st Century.”

The Congresswoman noted, too, that support for the repeal was bipartisan.

“There’s nothing partisan about poverty,” she said. “From my stand point, we are embracing the future for Indian country.

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. said that a significant investment will be necessary to develop the land.

“Whether it be housing, grocery stores, gas stations, schools, hospitals, police stations, paving the roads; we’re going to be as diligent as we can be to try to do that, and do it as soon as possible.”

The president also wants to educate Congress about the conditions that still exist in the former Bennett Freeze area and throughout his tribe. He noted that while the country currently has an 8.5 percent unemployment rate, the jobless rate on the Navajo Nation has never been better than 50 percent.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the congressional repeal into law soon.