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Why not a chapter for the Navajos living on the Hopi partitioned lands?

As reported in Indian Country Today (“Shirley urges formation of urban chapters” by Brenda Norrell, Vol. 25, Iss. 42), Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. is encouraging the formation of urban chapters by Navajos living in Albuquerque, N.M.; Phoenix; Los Angeles; Denver; Salt Lake City; and Chicago, which “would enable them to get a fair share of resources, funding and services from the Navajo Nation.”

“The Navajo Nation coffers is your money, too,” Shirley is reported to have said in an address to Navajos living in Albuquerque.

Chapters, of which there are 110 on the Navajo reservation, are the basic political units of the nation, electing representatives to the Navajo Nation Council and providing goods and services to those people living within the chapter’s district.

Each chapter is intended to represent the interests of its members. Enrolled members of the Navajo Nation living in urban areas are members of chapters on the reservation; but, according to the article, they “expressed frustration, saying they are treated by their home chapters as if they are no longer members of the community.”

The issue, then, is one of representation. While they are already members of chapters on the reservation, urban Navajos do not feel represented by these chapters, not simply because of physical distance from them but also because the problems facing urban Navajos are not identical to the problems facing chapter members at home; and, clearly, institutions at the chapters (day care, senior centers, meal programs, etc) cannot serve Navajos living hundreds of miles away. Thus, urban chapters are necessary, the logic goes, to represent these political constituencies with their distinctive agendas.

If this logic makes sense, and we think it does, then why shouldn’t it apply to the Navajos living on the Hopi Partitioned Lands who, because of their distinctive political status brought about by outcome of the Navajo-Hopi land dispute, petitioned the Navajo Nation five years ago for recognition as a separate chapter but without success?

The Accommodation Agreement of the 1996 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act places HPL Navajos under Hopi as well as Navajo jurisdiction.

While HPL Navajos are members of the Navajo Nation, they also come under Hopi jurisdiction (because, due to the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974, they are living on what is now Hopi land) in both criminal and civil matters relating to residency on the HPL while remaining under Navajo jurisdiction in other civil matters, particularly in the domestic sphere.

Because of the history of the land dispute, HPL Navajos have a whole set of issues relating to the terms and enforcement of the AA that are unique to their situation, including the crucial matters of grazing and religious rights.

Nevertheless, these Navajos have no representation on the Hopi tribal council; and their only representation on the Navajo tribal council is through their separate chapters bordering the HPL, where they are represented not as a group but as separate persons.

Dispersed over the 1.85 million acres of the HPL, these Navajos are necessarily members of different chapters. Thus, they, like their urban counterparts, have no representation as a distinct group with a set of special concerns.

Due to the history of the land dispute, it is clear that they need such representation. The most effective way to achieve this would be as a separate HPL chapter represented on the Navajo Nation Council, where the HPL Navajos could present their agenda as a community to the nation. For the Navajo Nation, as a party to the provisions of the 1996 Act, which includes the AA, is the proper representative of this group before the Hopi Tribe. Without such representation, which their separate chapters cannot give them, the HPL Navajos are effectively without a political voice in an arena where their vital interests are at stake.

Katherine Smith, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and a life-long resident of Big Mountain on the HPL, wrote the following:

“At this point in history, we, [HPL] Navajos, have no sovereignty left. We do not have power over our own lives or stewardship over our natural resources. The Dineh who live on the HPL under the 1996 Accommodation Agreement, are without proper political representation. Furthermore, HPL residents are left with no resources for funding basic human services, including community buildings, housing, decent roads, electricity and running water. Residents must drive long distances to access health services, schools, jobs, haul drinking water, pick-up mail, get gas, and groceries.”

If Shirley is encouraging the formation of urban chapters so that members of these communities with their distinctive agendas arising from their distinctive circumstances can be represented on the Navajo Nation Council, then he should be supportive of the formation of an HPL chapter.

For while HPL residents live physically closer to the nation than urban Navajos, they also live in exile and are in need of the political representation that will give them a voice in their own affairs and a chance to access the resources of which, clearly, they are both deserving and in great need.

Eric Cheyfitz is an Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University. Marie Gladue is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and HPL resident.