WASHINGTON, D.C.-Members of the Navajo Hopi Land Commission met with a host of congressional offices this week to garner support for the reconstruction of the former Bennett Freeze in western Navajo lands.
"People have suffered for more than 40 years," said Raymond Maxx, chairman of the Navajo Hopi Land Commission. "We're wanting to move forward," said Maxx in the commission's meeting with Congressman Rick Renzi, R-AZ-1. "People have been denied living, education, infrastructure, housing, jobs and economic development."
Members of the commission who attended meetings on the hill Sept. 19-20 are Raymond Maxx, Evelyn Acothley, who serves as the commission vice chair, Leslie Dele, Amos Johnson, Lee Jack and Lorenzo Curley. The commission executive director Roman Bitsuie was also present, along with Washington Attorney Gregory Smith, and Navajo Nation Washington policy director Simon Boyce, who oversees natural resources for the tribe in Washington.
It is anticipated that a bill will be introduced in the House of Representatives to address reconstruction and development of the former Bennett Freeze area. The proposed legislation will also seek to re-task the federally funded Navajo Hopi Relocation Office to focus on badly needed survey, development, and building projects in the freeze area. An emphasis will also be placed on housing.
There are currently approximately 5,000 Navajo families who live in the freeze area spanning over nine chapters in the western Navajo region. Each member who serves and comprises the Navajo Hopi Land Commission are council delegates whose chapters are affected by the freeze area. Navajo Nation Council Delegate Lorenzo Curley of Houck represents Nahata Dziil known as the New Lands chapter where many Navajo families relocated from lands partitioned to the Hopi tribe.
Last year the freeze was lifted through the action through a U.S. district court action, ending a 40 year administrative hold on development of land.
The commission met with several congressional offices including Senators Robert Bennett, R-UT, Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, Pete Domenici, R-NM, Jon Kyl, R-AZ and Orrin Hatch, R-UT. Congressional offices visited include Heather Wilson, R-NM-1, Steve Pearce, R-NM, Tom Udall, D-NM-3, and Jim Matheson, D-UT-2. The congressional meetings were held to generate bi-partisan support for the makings of a bill, anticipated to be introduced in this session.
In May, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley formally asked the Indian Affairs Tribal Budget Advisory Council comprised of tribal leaders to support his request to the bureau for a million dollars to fund a comprehensive study of the Bennett Freeze area. Tribal leaders approved President Shirley's request.
In February, a House and Senate bill were introduced to repeal the statutory language of the Bennett Freeze. Both bills have been referred to the respective House and Senate committee and are awaiting a hearing.
The commission also met with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Discussions were held at HUD's Office of Native American programs to re-think lending methods to increase home construction in the freeze area. Some strategies included combing HUD program initiatives with other federal agencies, and leveraging money for growth and investment.
"This isn't re-building this is new building," said Bitsuie, as most of the homes are dilapidated. "In that respect we are 40 years behind the times. Roads are probably 100 years behind the modern age."