Fighting for home

Bennett Freeze dissenters ready for legal battle

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times
August 24, 2006

BIG MOUNTAIN, Ariz. – An Aug. 18 meeting at Sam Yazzie’s home, called “forgotten people” by its organizers, starred with a Navajo prayer chanted by medicine man, Norris Nez of Hollow Mesa, Ariz.

Nez, 78, later said the prayer was one he usually does not use. In this case, however, he said it was needed “to combat” the words in a proposed compact to end the 40-year-old Bennett Freeze.

Nez was among about 50 residents of the freeze area who gathered to voice their worry that they are about to be hurt again by the politics surrounding the land dispute.

The freeze is an area of several hundred thousand acres on which both Navajos and Hopis have historic claims. A former secretary of the Interior Department ruled that all construction on the land must cease until an agreement was reached, yielding the term the Bennett Freeze.

A proposal is now in circulation that would settle the tribes’ land claims, but Nez called the compact “wrong” because it would signal the sixth relocation of Navajo people in the western Navajo Reservation.
Speaking through interpreter Milton Nez, his brother, Norris Nez said the proposed settlement would also mean continued regulation of Navajo religion by Hopi and federal authorities.

The proposed agreement is backed by President Joe Shirley Jr., Attorney General Louis Denetsosie and the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission, all of whom have been working with the Hopis and federal officials to hammer out the agreement since 2002.

Selling the deal

In early July, Shirley began visiting chapters in western Navajo to talk about the proposed freeze settlement.

“This compact requires no loss of land, no relocation from homes, no further expense, but offers both Navajos and Hopis a way to continue their religious practices in areas they’ve always considered traditional,” Shirley said.

Shirley added that the intergovernmental agreement amicably grants both nations what each has long sought.

But Norris Nez, who was born in a hogan and raised on land that became part of the disputed area, maintains that the proposal is no guarantee that Navajo residents of the area would not be subject to further dislocation.

Hundreds of families already have been forced to move, and those who remain, like Nez and others, resisted the pressure to move off land claimed by the Hopi Tribe.

Norris Nez disputed Hopi claims that would be embedded as fact in the proposed compact, such as the assertion that Hopis historically collected eagles from areas in western Navajo and that they are the only people who used the Salt Trail.

The Salt Trail is a footpath that runs for a hundred miles or more between the Hopi mesas and the Grand Canyon.

Salt Trail dispute

Norris Nez pointed out language in the proposed agreement that would allow the Hopis continued use of the “Hopi Salt Trail,” noting that there is no mention of a Navajo Salt Trail.

Raising another objection, he said the places that the Hopis claim to have gathered eagles and seek to enshrine as protected religious sites, are in areas where no eagles lived in the past.

He laughed as he said the so-called historic Hopi eagle gathering places were actually where crows used to live.

The proposed compact would expand Hopi claims to Navajo land, Nez said, and he predicted that Hopis will use it to move Navajo people from their homes again.

Bobby Bennett Sr., 63, and Robert Begay, Sr., 75, echoed Nez’s concern about the absence of any mention of the Navajo Salt Trail.

On Aug. 1, Bennett, Begay and Goldtooth filed a 30-day notice of intent to sue the Navajo Nation over the proposed contract.

They cited the Salt Trail issue on Aug. 17, when they filed a motion in Window Rock District Court seeking a temporary restraining order against Shirley, Denetsosie, and other key tribal officials.

The pair wanted to block the Navajo government from pursuing approval of the proposed compact while they fight it in court.

Court grants delay

The tribal court issued the TRO, and Bennett and Begay then accompanied a Navajo police officer to see it served on Shirley, Denetsosie, Speaker Lawrence T. Morgan, and Roman Bitsuie, director of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission.

On Aug. 18, Denetsosie cancelled a scheduled meeting to present the proposed settlement to the Tuba City Chapter.

Staff at the Navajo Justice Department said Wednesday, however, that the cancellation did not result from the TRO. Instead they said the meeting had merely been postponed until Friday, Aug. 25.

Meanwhile, tribal legislators also are voicing doubts about the proposed settlement. On Tuesday, the Government Services Committee voted 2-3 not to endorse it.

Committee members expressed similar concerns about Hopi eagle gathering, the lack of a map showing the Hopi Salt Trail, and the clear identification of concessions by the Navajo Nation.

They cited uncertainty over whether the Hopi government will approve the compact, and were bothered by the fact that affected members of the public are not allowed to view the entire compact.

The Hopis, citing religious concerns, have insisted that some portions of the agreement be closed to all eyes except for a limited number of top tribal officials.

Tsosie said the proposal was not provided to people attending the chapter meetings about the compact because of a confidentiality agreement between the two tribes.

Chief Legislative Counsel Raymond Etcitty said it was also to protect Navajo and Hopi religious sties identified in the compact.

The compact contains provisions in which each tribe authorizes members from the other one to enter its lands to gather materials used in religious ceremonies.

However, the two differ in one respect. The Navajos are specifically prohibited from gathering materials for sale or other commercial use, while the Hopi section does not contain a similar limitation.

Last week Bennett and Begay briefed the crowd gathered beneath the junipers at Sam Yazzie’s house on their legal effort to derail the proposed Freeze settlement.

They said they plan to seek a permanent injunction from the court as soon as the required 30-day notice period is over.



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.