Move from land tough on Navajos

Mark Shaffer
Republic Flagstaff Bureau
Jul. 7, 2006 12:00 AM

DINNEBITO - The area is called Hard Rocks, an appropriate name since no grass remains for Navajo shepherds and their flocks.

It was here, 20 years ago today, that protesters, spurred on by elderly Navajo grandmothers, made their final stand at the fence and piñon ridge lines against the largest forced movement of Native Americans during the 20th century.

More than 15,000 Navajos were given little option by Congress other than to take relocation benefits, about $30,000 apiece back then, and start new lives in surrounding towns or on other parts of the 100,000-population Navajo Reservation, the nation's largest reservation. They were removed from land that had been awarded years earlier to the smaller Hopi Tribe, land that was surrounded by the Navajo Reservation.

The move took Navajo families from their land, which is core to the tribe's earth-based religious beliefs.

It also contributed to the ongoing decline of the Navajo language and culture, which have slowly but steadily been fading, said Peter Iverson, an Arizona State University history professor and author of several books about the Navajo Nation. It was inevitable, he said, because a large percentage of those who moved went to urban surroundings.

"It's also hard for people in urban society, where land is a commodity, to understand their connection to this land and all the trauma associated with the move," Iverson said. "If you had to pick a population that was going to have a hard time adjusting elsewhere, there was no more obvious population than this one."

The $500 million relocation program was designed to disperse the Navajo from long-disputed land that had been designated as Hopi territory after decades of federal intervention. The relocatees far outnumbered the Hopi. Population on the Hopi land was 7,360 in 1990, 6,946 by 2000.

The relocation worked in the short term, but pressure is building on the periphery of the Hopi Reservation as hundreds of Navajos return to the land they had been told to leave. And bitterness remains over the controversial handling of the relocation.

Leo Maestas, a Holbrook Indian arts dealer who specializes in Navajo and Hopi jewelry and other crafts, said government intervention into the land controversy was "terribly misguided."

"They could have resolved a lot of their differences with negotiations between the tribes."

Navajos regret moving
The federal Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs made a concerted effort to replicate Navajo life in what became the new homeland for hundreds and hundreds of Navajos.

Mike McAlister, assistant director of the Relocation Commission, said the relocation office has built or bought 3,700 homes for relocated families. It also developed about 400,000 acres south of Sanders, where 320 relocated families moved.

They were placed in 17 "range clusters," communities of about 20 homes surrounded by thousands of acres of open land for grazing purposes and intended to replicate the Navajos' traditional society. The relocation office also did extensive fencing, water drilling and piping and road construction projects on that land.

But many relocatees in the Nahata Dziil, the so-called Navajo New Lands, are less than satisfied.

They complain about fence lines, the lack of plants that can be used as natural dyes in hand-woven blankets, meth use, possible livestock allotment cutbacks and alcoholism among tribe members because of the close proximity of bars.

Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., said relocatees to the New Lands "definitely did not get an acre for an acre with the deal."

"The wind is very harsh there because it doesn't have the contour of canyons like they had in their homelands," Renzi said.

One of the range housing developments, East Mill, is being abandoned because homes and a preschool in the area were built on shifting soils.

Dine Yazzie, 90, remembers the days when he herded 500 sheep and five horses in what is now the Big Mountain area of the Hopis near Hard Rocks.

Yazzie says through a Navajo translator that he now has one horse and 20 sheep that he tends daily. He spends the rest of the day listening to traditional Navajo songs on radio station KTNN in Window Rock and regretting that he ever left his homeland.

"They said that we were moving to a better place with all the land and livestock that we could want," Yazzie said. "It was nothing but lies. I waited seven years after 1986 before taking the benefits, and I wish now I never had."

The sheep herd of 83-year-old Hazel Bahe, who was one of the first relocatees from the Teesto area in the late 1980s, has been reduced to seven, all of which she has individually named.

When asked what relocation has meant to her, she points to her right eye, welling with tears.

Vergie Nelson, a cook at the New Lands senior citizens center, said she, like Yazzie, was one of the last to leave.

"They didn't even get the housing situation right here when they did the ranch clusters," Nelson said. "Navajo is based on family kinships in the housing clusters. They put people from all over the rez where I live down in Hard Scrabble."

Hopis look ahead

Most Hopi tribal members appreciate the separation from their longtime rivals and having land for economic and housing development.

"It's given us a whole new outlook on life, being buffered from Navajo encroachment and trespassing," Micah Loma'Omvaya, a Hopi tribal planner said as he sorted through programs mapping out the Hopi-partitioned land.

Most of the work thus far, Loma'Omvaya said, has been directed toward restoring rangeland, cleaning up dumps and tearing down structures left behind by the Navajos.

Hopi Chairman Ivan Sidney said during a House subcommittee hearing last month that the tribe has plans to build six housing developments on the land. One of them, Spider Mound, is in the development phase.

Sidney said Thursday that about 70 Hopi families have moved into the areas that the tribe received 20 years ago and that about 400 parcels had been assigned to tribal members for future use.

Tribal officials have been discussing other economic development, like a dude ranch and hotel along the paved Turquoise Trail in the northern part of the reservation. Another 40 miles is scheduled to be paved during the next 10 years to near Kayenta and Monument Valley, which both Hopis and Navajos believe will be a big boon for tourism.

But Councilman Clifford Quotsquahu fears a strife-filled future on the periphery of the Hopi Reservation.

"We've got to quit messing around and go out there and put our footprints on that land or we're going to find ourselves back in the same mess of two decades ago," Quotsquahu said. "We need to be gathering wood out there, picking tobacco for ceremonies, picking medicinal herbs.

"I'm afraid of all the Navajo resisters and their sympathizers coming back out there. . . . They still have a lot of influence with all those people in the Hard Rocks area."

Unable to adjust
The relocation act was passed by Congress in 1974 to solve a century-old problem of Navajo shepherds encroaching on the northeastern Arizona mesas, where Hopis had lived for centuries.

The act divided the joint-use area into equal parts and required all Hopis to leave the Navajo side and all Navajos to leave the Hopi side. Only a few hundred Hopis had to move while more than 15,000 Navajos were forced to relocate.

McAlister, of the Relocation Commission, said 200 Navajo families signed an accommodation agreement in the 1990s for a 75-year lease to stay on land partitioned to the Hopis but that fewer than 50 families remain. He said eight Navajo families on the Hopi land refused to relocate or sign the accommodation, and remain on the land today.

Harry Begay, community services director of the Hardrock Chapter of the Navajo Reservation, deals with the social consequences of the relocation on a daily basis.

Despite the local Navajo governing unit not being able to offer more grazing or home-construction leases on the land because of overcrowding, Begay said those who were relocated to urban areas are flocking back.

They can't adjust to the outside world, he said. They often leave the homes they were relocated to in shambles, repairs undone, taxes unpaid. They vividly remember their pastoral past. And they see the plentiful green grass on the Hopi side of the fence.

The area of about 3,000 Navajos is a barren, virtual island, where the only paved road leads to the heart of the Hopi Reservation.

Social life consists of hanging out at Dinnebito Trading Post, where a swamp cooler barely functioned on a recent hot afternoon and posters of Navajo sheep, cattle and horses seized by Hopi rangers on their side of the fence filled a bulletin board. If the Navajo owners of the livestock don't pay an impoundment fee within five days, the livestock are hauled away to Holbrook and sold.

"We've had at least 100 families move back to this community. Some of the homes have 20 people in them now," Begay said. "If people don't quit seeing nothing on the other side of the fence and the Hopis don't start using their land, all this growth pressure is going to lead to another relocation crisis in the future."


originally found in the Arizona Republic

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