Panel rejects deal settling Navajo, Hopi land feud

By John Christian Hopkins
Diné Bureau

WINDOW ROCK The Government Services Committee narrowly rejected an agreement Monday aimed at settling the Navajo-Hopi land feud.

GSC members Orlanda Smith-Hodge and Mel Begay expressed concern that the pact under consideration lacked any supporting resolutions from the chapters affected by the proposed settlement.

Delegate Duane Tsinigine, who sponsored the legislation, along with Deputy Attorney General Harrison Tsosie and Chief Legislative Counsel Ray Etcitty said there only two alternatives: negotiate an agreement or continue litigation.

The main thing to consider is that no land ownership will change hands and no Navajo families will be relocated, Tsosie said. The pact basically spells out that both Navajo and Hopi will respect each other's traditional religious practices and the right to practice them without interference, he added.

The Hopi filed suit in 1974 against the Navajo seeking half of a seven-million acre tract that the tribe claimed was its homeland. In 1992 the District Court ruled the Hopi were entitled to only 62,000 additional acres.

The Hopi appealed the decision, this time arguing that some of their religious shrines and sacred sites were located on Navajo. In 1994, the Appellate Court upheld the earlier decision regarding the land claim, but noted that some religious issues remained unresolved.

Negotiating a settlement with Hopi was the best option, Etcitty said. He told the committee up front that he lived in Jedditto, within the disputed Bennett Freeze area. By negotiating, the tribes retain control over the outcome. If it continues in litigation "some white Anglo court judge, sitting in Phoenix, will make the decision," Etcitty said.

It would be even more costly to continue the litigation, Tsinigine said.

The key elements of the proposed settlement are:

  • No land changes ownership;
  • Future monetary claims are waived;
  • The Bennett Freeze would end;
  • Litigation ends;
  • Both tribes maintain access to religious sites on the other's land;
  • Enforcement of settlement provisions would be by arbitration.

Basically, each side gives a little under the agreement, Tsosie said.

The question is what did Navajo gain by the compromise, asked GSC Chairman Ervin Keeswood Sr. It appears that Hopi got more out of it, he said. For example, Hopi are allowed to come to eagle nests on Navajo and take 18 eaglets a year, while Navajo are only allowed 12, Keeswood noted.

Navajo retains ownership of the land, Tsosie said. Also Hopi can only collect "fledgling golden eagles and hawks" at specific sites addressed in the pact, Tsosie explained. In return, Navajos will get access to springs and sites on Hopi, he added. Religious sites for both tribes contain an 800-foot easement, or right of way, Tsosie said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency will issue permits for the collection of eaglets, Etcitty said. Basically, "the Hopi didn't trust us and we didn't trust them" as far as monitoring eagle collections, Etcitty said.

The negotiators met with representatives from the Medicine Man's Association before agreeing to that provision, Tsosie said.

"The eagles were more important to the Hopi, while Navajos wanted access to the springs and the right to take some of the water," Tsosie said. "It's a good settlement."

The steps to end the long-time feud begin with both tribal councils approving the pact, Tsosie said. Then the Secretary of the Interior would have to sign off on it, before it goes back to the court, where the judge must also agree.

A final more symbolic step would then have the Congress accept the compact and lift the Bennett Freeze, Tsosie said. But once the judge signs off the settlement goes into effect whether Congress acts on it or not, Tsosie explained.

"If the Hopi don't approve, or the Navajo doesn't, then where are we at?" asked GSC member Leo R. Begay. "Probably back in litigation; and there would probably be no settlement in our lifetimes."

Keeswood asked if this compact was the final agreement, or if the Navajo Nation Council could still make changes.

"The council could make changes, but the Hopi probably wouldn't like it," Etcitty said.

Any attempt to alter the settlement now would result in an end to negotiations, Tsosie said.

The compact refers to "traditional" religious ceremonies, Tsosie noted. For example, he said, a Navajo couldn't go on Hopi for a Sun Dance.

"The Sun Dance isn't one of our tradition ceremonies," he said. "It's a Lakota tradition."

But squabbling over just what is traditional is still a possibility, Etcitty said. Some Navajos would insist that peyote is a traditional practice, while others would disagree, he said.

But this settlement is the best possible solution, Etcitty said.

"This is the closest we've been to a settlement in 12 years," Etcitty said.

GSC voted against the pact, 3-2.

With a special council session set for Friday, Tsinigine is pushing to get this compromise on the agenda.


originally found at the Gallup Independent, 23 August 2006


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