Bennett Freeze

Family that gave land has no regrets

By Cindy Yurth, Navajo Times Times, October 18, 2007

TUBA CITY Max Goldtooth doesn't want his land back. Most days.

Today he's looking out across Kerley Valley from the backyard of his Navajo Housing Authority rental, pointing out the 32,000 acres to which his family had the grazing rights until last year.

He briefly contemplates taking a reporter and photographer out to the land, to show them the little springs and shady groves where he herded sheep as a child. He doesn't think the Hopis who graze their flocks there now would mind. Several of them were his childhood friends.

But to cross the barbed-wire fence that demarcates Hopi and Navajo partitioned land could cause an inter-tribal incident, and Goldtooth decides not to risk it.

These days, what's left of the Goldtooth family's flocks has to be trucked to Grey Mountain to graze.

Goldtooth's father, the late Teddy Goldtooth, made the painful decision to sacrifice the 32,000 acres of grassland and scrub forest to settle once and for all the conflict over the land known as the "Bennett Freeze."

The valleys that surround the Hopi mesas have long been occupied by both Hopis and Navajos and both tribes claim customary use rights to them.

Until a compact between the two tribes was signed last Oct. 4, the land had been "frozen" to development. Not even an addition to a cramped house could be made without approval from both tribes.

Teddy Goldtooth, who had served as a Navajo Nation Council delegate from 1991 to 1995, had watched with concern as the area, frozen since 1966, fell further and further behind the modern world.

Though power lines ran through the valleys, just yards from home sites in some cases, generations grew up and died without knowing what it was like to turn on a light switch.

In the late 1990s, Goldtooth approached the tribe about offering his land to the Hopis to help push along the compact that would lift the Bennett Freeze.

It wasn't an easy decision. Goldtooth had put his heart and soul into that land, quarrying sandstone and building homes for his extended family, a trading post, even a church for the Christian community although he himself was a traditional practitioner.

"I remember he rode around to all the relatives to talk to them about what he wanted to do," says Max Goldtooth, looking out across the valley. "Not one time but many times. He talked to everybody before he made the decision to give up the land."

According to Max, Teddy Goldtooth told the attorneys who were negotiating on behalf of the tribe he wanted his acreage to be the last Navajo land ceded to the Hopis.

"He told them, 'Take my land and leave all those other people alone,'" Max Goldtooth recalled. He was distressed to learn later that 10,000 more acres had been ceded. "But he couldn't do anything at that point."

As Max recollects, Teddy was never completely comfortable with his decision.

"He said, 'It wasn't something good that I did,'" Max recalls, his voice shaking a bit. "'But all these people living here, they deserve to live better than this. When I go before the Creator and he asks me, 'What did you do for your people?' I can show him this.'"

Max watched this past summer as power poles went up in the Freeze, and one by one the lights came on in the dilapidated little shacks and hogans.

He hears people talking excitedly about the improvements they plan to make to their properties, and he's glad his father made the choice he did - even though his mother, Teddy's widow, has yet to get a power line.

"I just want people to be happy and live full lives," he says. "That's the way to honor my father's sacrifice.

"The Hopis too," he said, "I hope they're enjoying the land and using it well. There's been so much intermarriage around here, I don't think we can say 'us' and 'them' any more. We're all relatives."

As for his neighbors who are challenging the compact in court, he hopes they're able to achieve a settlement they can live with.

"There's still some friction there," he admits. "It's hard to be around them. I'm just looking forward to the day we can put all this behind us and move on with our lives.

"Sometimes I feel like a little wheel caught between two big wheels that are moving opposite ways," he added.

Teddy Goldtooth didn't live to see the power poles go up in the Bennett Freeze. He died Feb. 13, 2006, seven months before the compact was signed. But Max has no doubt he was looking down and smiling.

"I know he helped us," he says confidently. "He's still helping us. He's in the spirit world now, so he's even more powerful."


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