Proposed closure of Relocation Office viewed with caution by Hopi Tribe

KYKOTSMOVI -- Congressional attempts to close the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (ONHIR) by 2008 should not be advanced until it has completed its work of relocating Navajo families off Hopi lands, officials with the two tribes told congressional leaders earlier this month.

"The Hopi Tribe is grateful for the committee's efforts in attempting to bring to a close the long struggle by the Hopi people to protect our aboriginal lands from encroachment and secure jurisdictional control over those lands," Hopi Tribal Chairman Wayne Taylor Jr. told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs meeting July 21 in Washington, D.C.

"However, we are concerned that the deadlines will prejudice the rights and interests of the Hopi Tribe."

Distressed that 11,000 mostly Navajo people have had to "live through the nightmare of relocation," Navajo President Joe Shirley told the committee he did not think "federal budgetary issues alone" should force completion of a relocation effort "that brings humanity to what has otherwise been an inhumane process."

Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) said the relocation program established in the Land Settlement Act of 1974 as a means of ending territorial disputes between the Hopi and Navajo nations has cost $483 million over 30 years. The program originally was envisioned to cost $40 million.

"It's gonna be over, it's gonna to be over, it's gonna be over," McCain told those at the hearing. "It's time it ended. It's time that we brought to a conclusion this tragedy that has afflicted human beings on the Navajo and Hopi reservations for too long."

Senate Bill 1003 amendments to the Settlement Act calls for closing the ONHIR by 2008 and transferring remaining responsibilities for relocating Navajo off Hopi lands to the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. The relocations were required when the Federal government divided about 1.8 million acres surrounding the Hopi villages into Hopi and Navajo partitioned lands.

"Hopi people years ago moved off disputed Navajo lands," Taylor told the committee. "However, more than 30 years [later] we are still waiting for the Navajo to move off Hopi land."

Representatives of the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe agreed that relocation has caused suffering and numerous problems. Hundreds of families have been uprooted from their homes as a result of a long-running dispute over the ownership of lands within the two reservations.

Disagreements, however, came on whether the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission should be given more time to complete its duties and whether the tribes should be allowed to work out any remaining differences. These concerns were closely linked to the separate but related issue of the "Bennett Freeze," a Bureau of Indian Affairs policy from 1966 that limits Navajo Nation development on disputed lands.

Taylor told the committee the tribes have negotiated a compact to settle outstanding issues in the 1934 land case. "The Hopi Tribal Council has already approved the compact," Chairman Taylor said. "We are waiting on the Navajo Nation council to do likewise. Final approval of the compact will have the effect of lifting the freeze."

Taylor said he was concerned that proposed SB 1003 amendments not "undo years of litigation" establishing dispute resolution provisions between the two tribes. "The Hopi Tribe opposes any changes to provisions of the 1974 Act," he said.

"SB 1003 is intended to complete the work of relocating Navajo off Hopi lands and close the Office of Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation (ONHIR) by 2008," Taylor said. "We certainly welcome those goals, which under the Settlement Act were suppose to be completed in 2000.

"However, we are concerned that the deadlines will prejudice the rights and interests of the Hopi Tribe. SB 1003 will be effective only so long as it enables the Hopi Tribe to retain complete jurisdiction over all its reservation lands as provided in the 1974 Act."

The Hopi Tribe fears that provisions of SB 1003 may delay final relocation. The bill provides that relocation funds may be placed into a trust for heirs of those who refuse to relocate, rewarding them for continued, illegal occupation of Hopi lands. While the bill establishes removal/eviction requirements, it leaves much to the discretion of the U.S. Attorney. Taylor said eviction should be mandatory and deadlines for appeals should not stretch the process beyond 2008.

The Hopi Tribe believes the ONHIR should be sufficiently staffed and funded -- including funds for housing those relocated -- so that all work of the ONHIR is completed by 2008. No relocation duties should be turned over to the BIA, Taylor said.

"We do not believe the BIA -- which already is overburdened -- is equipped to handle relocation," Taylor said. "In addition, the BIA has a trust responsibility to both the Hopi and Navajo nations. Injecting the BIA into the relocation matter may be a breach of the federal trust responsibility the BIA has to both tribes."

ONHIR Executive Director Christopher Bavasi said he was confident the program could be completed by 2008. BIA Director Pat Ragsdale said the agency supports the legislation if it forces the government to complete its job.

McCain was adamant about ending the matter.

"Maybe the lesson is you shouldn't try to settle land dispute through legislation," he said of the 1974 bill that led to the current situation. "There is a limited amount of taxpayer dollars that could be devoted to worthy causes on both the Navajo and Hopi reservations; educational facilities, health care facilities, housing, many others."

The Navajo Reservation covers 18 million acres in three states. The tribe's original reservation, established in 1868 was much smaller. While it was located on Hopi aboriginal lands, it did not overlap the Hopi Reservation established by executive order in 1882.

Navajo in the 1868 treaty expressly disclaimed any right to occupy territory outside the reservation. Nevertheless, Navajo settled on Hopi land with the tacit approval of the Federal government.

The Hopi Reservation was established by executive order in 1882. The original Hopi Reservation was 2.4 million acres but the land base now stands at 1.6 million acres and is completely surrounded on all sides by the Navajo Reservation.

The Hopis lost land because the courts later ruled that the executive order allowed "other Indians" to live on the Hopi Reservation. By that time, the Hopis had been confined to 600,000 acres of the original reservation. The remaining areas were deemed "joint use" by the tribes.

After more litigation and battles, the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement of 1974 authorized the partitioning of the joint use area. The Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation were each restored lands, and the relocation program was created to move Navajo families off Hopi lands and vice versa.

Since then, an estimated 11,000 Navajo and Hopi tribal members have been moved. Hundreds more families -- mostly Navajos -- haven't been relocated, either due to lack of money, failure to seek relocation or outright resistance.

No family is forced to move under the program or under a subsequent agreement involving Navajo families who still live on the northern part of the Hopi Reservation. However, some Navajo families refuse to recognize the Hopi Tribe's jurisdiction and won't sign leases that allow them to stay for 75 years.

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