Paiute and Navajo Nation sign historic treaty

by Debra Moon

The Observer

On March 18th, at Hidden Springs Arizona, north of Tuba City, Johnny M. Lehi, Sr., President of the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, and Kelsey Begaye, President of the Navajo Nation, signed the first treaty that two Indian Tribes have signed with each other in 160 years. The dreams and efforts of Paiute Tribe members, Navajos living in the area, officials, and friends, came true on this sunny afternoon after nearly 20 years of effort and negotiation from persons on all sides of the issue. The treaty allows the Paiutes approximately 5,400 acres of land of their own. The land designated is in two parcels and is presently occupied by Paiute families.

The Paiute Tribe began their efforts to obtain the land in 1981, when they realized, through consultation with DNA-Peoples’ Legal Services attorneys, that their land was part of the Bennett Freeze area. As part of the dispute between the Navajo and Hopi Tribes, homes in this large portion of the western Navajo Reservation cannot engage in new construction, nor are they permitted water or electricity.

The Southern Paiute Tribe filed a claim in Federal Court, supported by the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colorado. This organization proved through research that Paiute families exclusively occupied portions of the land as early as 1934. The judge’s ruling recognized the existence of the Paiute people in the area, but declined to grant them the right to the land based on lack of jurisdiction or authority to make such a ruling. The Paiutes appealed, and a negotiator was assigned to attempt to settle out of court. The March 18th Treaty was a result of these negotiation efforts.

The Southern Paiute Tribe was federally recognized in December of 1989, and the decision was upheld in 1990. Since that time the Paiute Tribe has begun to establish a more westernized form of government with a Constitution and public officers. Previous to that time, the Tribe maintained their traditional form of government. In fact, despite their lack of a land base, their culture, language, traditional government and traditional practices have survived.

But without a land base, many federal, state, private grant monies and programs are not available to tribes. In the case of the San Juan Southern Paiute, they could not obtain their own funds or programs without land, and they were often denied services through the Navajo Tribe, because they were Paiute, not Navajo. The Paiutes have suffered deprivation, even to the point of hunger, as a result of these discrepancies and other factors. Through the present day, they have been a very poor tribe. All members are hoping that the treaty will begin a series of events that will result in economic development and jobs for the Paiute people.

The treaty signing took place under a circular ramada on what turned out to be a perfect spring day. After an opening prayer by Ms. Grace Lehi, tribal council member for the Paiute Tribe, and a brief address from Ms. Patonya Tallman, Miss Southern Paiute, Mrs. Mary Lou Boone, also a tribal council member, delivered a poetic speech relating the struggles of her tribe.

“There were times when we would lean on each other in our anger and our pain,” she emphasized. “We each knew we had to become stronger than our pain.” Council Member Boone said that just when the going seemed the roughest, something would happen, and “like the changing seasons, before we were frozen with bitterness from the winter wind in our faces, the warm spring winds were whispering in our ears, changing our hearts, and giving us encouragement to go on.”

Speeches were short and delivered in the Paiute language, Navajo and English, but more often, in a mixture of the three. Navajo and Paiute Council Members spoke of their happiness and pride on the day of the treaty signing. The Navajo Nation Bodaway Chapter was the first to approve the terms of the current treaty. Duwayne Tsinnijinnie, Council Representative from the Bodaway Chapter, declared, “We are brothers and sisters under God’s eyes. We’ve got to prove we can live together.” He called the Treaty, “a Big Light at the end of the Tunnel” for both tribes.

See Treaty, page 2

Herbert Lewis, new Governor of the Hopi Village of Upper Moenkopi, presented a letter from the Hopi Tribal Vice Chairman to Southern Paiute President. Lewis promised along with the Vice Chairman, “to work in the continued spirit of peace and tribal sovereignty.”

The Treaty is an Act of Goodwill by both the Navajo Nation and the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe. The theme of the signing ceremony was harmony, and it was evident that many involved in the negotiations have been earnestly seeking ways to live together. A memorable part of the ceremony was the performance of three songs by the Arbor Shade Singers. All members of the group are children of the late Lewis Calamity, Sr. Lewis was well known by all the people involved with the Treaty for his generous spirit and efforts toward equanimity and respect for all people. A Navajo gentleman, he worked to obtain the Treaty for the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe.

Kim Gottshalk, Attorney for the Paiute, remarked that many in attendance at the ceremony had small children at the beginning of the long trek to obtain the treaty. He observed that now these children were grown to adulthood, and some were in attendance in the audience.

Evelyn James, Vice Chairman for the Southern Paiute Tribe, spoke of maintaining her friendship with a long-time Navajo friend through the ordeal. Her friendship was still strong and she felt that it was all worth it for the “young people.” Evelyn, who looks fairly young herself, sees new possibilities for a younger generation. “We’re making room for them,” she confirmed.

Begaye wished that the whole world could be watching to see that “Indian Tribes can really work together to take care of problems.” He spoke of the two tribes, “We [Navajo and Paiute] have always been close. After the Treaty signing, one thing will happen. We will be closer.”

Johnny Lehi, Sr. told the crowd how happy he was that the event was taking place with the new plants and blossoms of spring. He spoke of his pride in the Eagle feather carried during the posting of the colors at the start of the ceremony. “It is for a healing ceremony,” he explained, “....A song goes with it. It has been given to us from generation to generation, as part of the Sun Dance.... I respect that feather.” Lehi was obviously content looking over the gathering of all his friends, family, tribesmen and supporters as they celebrated their agreement with the Navajo Nation.

The two tribes exchanged gifts after the signing. They included a traditional peace pipe, four plaque-type baskets from the Paiute, and bundles of live juniper for health, peace and well-being in mind, spirit and body.

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