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The Bennett Freeze's Surreal Nightmare Should Be Ending—But It's Not

A story about the Bennett Freeze of 1966.
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By rights, thousands of Navajos living in the former Bennett Freeze area should be able to repair their homes and build new infrastructure, since President Obama lifted prohibitions on those long-banned activities in 2009. But even though millions of dollars are available for rehabilitation—and government agencies and nonprofit groups alike boast shovel-ready home-building projects—help has been painfully slow to arrive.

Up to 20,000 people now live in the former Bennett Freeze area, which includes more than 1.5 million acres. Raymond Maxx, executive director of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission, has identified 17 families in emergency need of new homes, which means they’re living out of vehicles or with relatives, or are at risk of exposure-related deaths because of serious structural issues with their houses. Thousands more are known to be living in conditions that are less severe but still substandard. But so far, politics and infighting—about who should provide the money, and how to divide it—has stymied efforts to deliver anything at all.

Decades-Long Oppression
When then-Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Commissioner Robert L. Bennett enacted the Bennett Freeze in 1966, it was ostensibly to quell an ongoing land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes after the Hopi Tribe sued to claim the acreage. Some Navajo residents of the area say there wasn’t a problem that warranted federal intervention. Don Yellowman, Navajo, who grew up in the area, believes the freeze was not an answer to the land dispute with the Hopis—but a divide-and-conquer tactic that would make it possible for outside industries to gain access to the land.

The Gordy family, from left: Trayston, Betty and Larry

“There’s so much from this area for the rest of the world to benefit from,” he says, pointing out that Peabody Coal was negotiating leases and settling into the area when the freeze was put in place. “I can see that this land dispute was purposefully intended to create animosity among the people.”
Whatever the motive, the freeze effectively stalled all development on much of the western Navajo Nation, and residents couldn’t so much as repair a roof or maintain a horse corral. There were, however, rare times when personalities and circumstances aligned so that projects could be completed despite the ban.

Louise Yellowman, Don’s mother, opened the first Head Start program for children in her area, in quiet defiance of the moratorium. It started as a little room in the chapter house, she remembers—she “just did it,” just made it happen, without asking permission. A few years later, much working, wishing and praying led to an IHS grant for water to the building, which was by then on its way to becoming a bona fide school. “We were able to put the pipe in the ground,” she remembers. “Then we found out the water didn’t go. We needed electricity.” She made that happen, too, in the early 1970s. Soon after that, she says, the Hopis closed down everything, and construction projects became a lot harder to push through. “We were like cats, walking really softly. The Hopis didn’t know we’d started the public school.”

It’s difficult to determine how actively the Hopis were in enforcing the freeze. Larry Gordy, a Navajo and freeze-area resident, recalls that concealed a project to fix a roof on his horse corral using tarps, for fear of getting caught. If the Hopis flew over and saw you trying to fix something, he says, you’d be tagged. Others lived in fear of periodic flyovers and inspections by both the BIA and Hopi tribal officials.

Ivan Sidney, who was Hopi tribal chairman in the 1980s, disputes that. “We were never out there enforcing anything,” he says. In fact, Sidney says he reached out to the Navajos on several occasions. “I contacted the Navajo tribe and informed them if there were severe cases of people’s homes needing repairs, they needed to let us know.”

Thawing Out—On Paper
By the 1990s, publicity about the plight of Bennett Freeze–area residents ramped up. Within 10 years, the tribes were close to negotiating a resolution on the land dispute. During that time, pieces of the land were released from the freeze. About 700,000 acres remained frozen in 2006 when, finally, the tribes reached a settlement that returned most of the disputed land to the Navajo Tribe. The freeze was all but lifted at that point—but it wasn’t until 2009, when President Obama signed a bill, sponsored by then-congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Arizona), to repeal the law that created the freeze. By then, much damage had been done.

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“The goal of the amendment was to not allow any development on the disputed lands with the consent of both tribes,” reads the 2008 version of the bill to repeal the freeze. “However, the result has been that the Native Americans living in the Bennett Freeze region reside in conditions that have not changed since 1966, and need to be improved. Only three percent of the families affected by the Bennett Freeze have electricity, and only 10 percent have running water.” Costs to rehabilitate the area have been projected to reach as high as $1.3 billion.

The Navajo Nation has money available to rehabilitate the former Bennett Freeze area. In 2001, the BIA released $5 million from an escrow account that had grown from taxes, right-of-way payments and other revenues. The money has been earmarked for Bennett Freeze area rehabilitation. The Navajo-Hopi Land Commission has a plan for the money; $100,000 will be used to lobby the federal government to make financial amends for the freeze by pitching in for rehabilitation; $1 million will go for economic development, and the remaining $3.9 million will be used to provide homes. The government has voted to make $1.1 million of that available immediately, with Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Maxx agreeing last spring that the situation constituted an emergency for the hardest-hit families.

Still, as winter approaches, the money hasn’t been touched. Maxx insists that Navajo Nation bureaucracy is to blame. Originally, his office was ready to distribute the funds among the nine chapters that were affected—in whole or in part—by the freeze. But that plan was scrapped when the chapters could not agree on a fair distribution. More recently, Maxx has tried to develop his own plan, but he has been stymied by disagreements about how best to use the $3.9 million he has to manage.

In July, the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission presented a request to the Navajo Nation Council to match its $3.9 million Bennett Freeze budget with money from the Navajo Nation Reserves. The council approved the expenditure, but Shelly vetoed it. “He only allowed $180,000 of the total request,” says Walter Phelps, a council delegate representing the Cameron, Coalmine Canyon, Tsidi To’ii, Leupp and Tolani Lake chapters. “His specification is that he wanted to preserve $20 million…for future emergencies.”

Shelly and others have also complained about high overhead costs in Maxx’s construction plans that would divert too much money from the brick-and-mortar aspects of home building.

The Navajo-Hopi Land Commission’s accounting was also the subject of a lawsuit filed by Don Yellowman’s grassroots group, the Forgotten People, in 2010. The suit demands “a full accounting of all funds and monies set aside for the benefit of the plaintiffs and their class as survivors of the so-called ‘Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute.’ ” But since then, there has been a split between members of the Forgotten People. As part of the fallout, their lawsuit is stalled. The Forgotten People weren’t overly disappointed by Shelly’s veto, and they disagree with Maxx’s most recent plan to pay $1 million for fewer than 20 manufactured homes; they think the people of the Bennett Freeze area deserve a better deal. “How is that the best use of resources? How does that empower the people?” Yellowman says. “We could build 100 earth homes with that money.”

Conflicting Visions
There have been attempts to improve the lives of Bennett Freeze residents. The Flagstaff, Arizona–based Grand Canyon Trust, for example, recently awarded the Cameron Chapter a $500,000 grant for residential photovoltaic systems. And Project Pueblo, a student- and volunteer-run nonprofit organization with chapters at several California colleges and universities, has made several trips to install infrastructure at individual homes. But the large-scale progress that most people hope for hasn’t, so far, happened.

Larry Nez, legislative associate for the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission, says some of the disagreements come down to a difference in visions. The way he sees it, he and Maxx want to see aid go immediately to the people who need it most. Folks like the Forgotten People, by contrast, want to see aid get out to as many people as possible. That makes Nez nervous. There are potentially up to 40,000 people who could claim that they deserve compensation from the effects of the Bennett Freeze, he says—including people who have stayed, and many more people—especially youth—who evacuated to border towns and the administrative “safe zones” in Tuba City, Arizona and Moenkopi, where construction was allowed during the freeze. Divide the available funds too widely, he says, and the individual payoff will be minuscule.

Yellowman and other Bennett Freeze victim advocates are wary of Navajo Nation plans to invest in economic development while people are still suffering. Plans for the Twin Arrows casino development east of Flagstaff, for example, have drawn some ire. But Maxx believes economic development is the only way to pull the Bennett Freeze area out of poverty—and guarantee a better future for its people. “Our goal and objective is to establish ourselves independently, where we don’t have to go to the [Navajo] Nation for funding,” he said. “Every dollar that goes out, we want to get a return. We don’t want to spend, spend, spend and then sit there without any way of generating revenue.”

Maxx wants to see his housing projects get finished for the people who need them the most urgently. But overall, he sees the answer in renewable energy, commercial and retail projects. “That funding that was used to buy land for the casino project is an investment. We’re getting close to 30 million back over 30 years for that,” he said. “That’s a really good return. We could start to be self-sufficient.”