Back to square one with Bennett Freeze

Letter to the Editor, Navajo Times, FEBRUARY 28, 2008

One lonely winter night in December of 1998, I sat in a motel room in Winslow, Ariz., typing on a typewriter I borrowed from my sister, Gloria.

I wrote a letter to the editor of the Navajo-Hopi Observer lamenting the Bennett Freeze and how it personally affected my aged and handicapped parents and how the Bennett Freeze Diné were suffering under this unjust and inhumane law.

I agonized, asking, “Why do we live under these circumstances? Where is the Navajo Nation government? Or the state government?

Where is everybody? Does no one care? Why have we been forgotten?”

I talked to my little sister in Tuba City and we decided to hold a meeting of Bennett Freeze Diné to gather support to bring awareness and start petitioning the various governments involved.

The initial meeting of the “Bennett Freeze Diné: A Grassroots Organization for Action and Prosperity” was hosted by my little sister, Verna, at my older brother Frank Bilagody Sr.’s house in Tuba City.

That historic meeting led to more meetings, we were able to secure a meeting with then Arizona Rep. J. D. Hayworth, Hope MacDonald-LoneTree was a newly elected council delegate and so was Raymond Maxx, both of whom attended some of the earliest meetings we had and were instrumental in introducing resolutions to the Navajo Nation Council on our behalf.

We were able to attend the inauguration of President Kelsey Begaye in January 1999 with our signs, brining attention to the Bennett Freeze.

The organization snowballed from there, my brother Frank Bilagody Sr. and I addressed the Navajo Nation Council four times gathering support for a bill that was introduced by Hayworth that was introduced to Congress to repeal sec. 10(f) of Public Law 93-531, the “Bennett Freeze Law.”

As the organization grew and support poured in from all parts of the world, I was astonished to find out that most of the Navajo Nation knew nothing of this law. At that time, the estimated cost to develop and rehabilitate the Bennett Freeze lands, after the freeze was lifted, was around $300 million.

Remember, the freeze encompassed basically the entire western portion of the Navajo Nation. At the time the organization was formed, Bennett Freeze Diné were weary, hopeless, frustrated and despair filled our souls and our psyche.

My brother Frank and I encouraged, cajoled, reassured, and prodded the Bennett Freeze Diné to unite and speak with one voice. We were heard.

Negative forces from outside penetrated and broke apart the organization (said negative force took away and still has all the papers from the original organization). The Navajo Nation, to its credit, moved forward with the issue of lifting the freeze.

At the time the compact was signed and the freeze ended, I was happy but it was more of a weary happiness because I knew this was only the beginning.

Back in 1999, I told the Bennett Freeze Diné that it would be a battle to get the money due when the Bennett Freeze was lifted. Those words have proven to be true.

We were told that there would be $38 to $50 million held in trust by the U.S. government that we would be able to sue the government who was responsible for this travesty in the first place.

At the time this compact was being discussed, Hope MacDonald-Lonetree, among others, objected to the wording of the compact, in which the Navajo Nation gave u its right to claim monetary damages from the Bennett Freeze law.

Now there is talk that there is around $10-$11 million held in escrow, half of which automatically goes to the Hopi Tribe (for what, I have no idea, the Hopi Tribe was not affected at all by the Bennett Freeze, they were allowed to live their lives as they pleased).

The Navajo Nation claims there was no lands given up and no one will be forced to move and technically that may be true, however, the Diné who happen to live in the “secret” area now will be unable to build or improve their homes and cannot have water and electricity.

The Bennett Freeze has not been lifted for them. It will never be for them so we are back at square one.

Back in 1999, when the Bennett Freeze organization was dealing with all of these issues, the hardest time we had was dealing with the justice department or rather the lawyers who were supposedly working feverishly on our behalf to lift the freeze. It was to their advantage to drag this on for as long as they could and they did, for another seven years.

So…the Bennett Freeze is lifted and now begins our quest to find the money that was promised to us, to help build houses, put in infrastructure, build up businesses, and basically build a new country within the Navajo Nation.

But…we don’t have the money

We can’t sue the U.S. government for the estimated $300 million it’s going to take to rebuild the Bennett Freeze because our Navajo Nation lawyers have signed away that right.

We had $38-50 million held in escrow but we have access to less than half of that because the Navajo Nation lawyers have signed away half of that to the Hopi Tribe.

The Diné who live in the “secret” areas can’t build or rebuild or have waterlines or electricity and so are still under the Bennett Freeze.

Now, I am wondering just exactly what the Navajo Nation lawyers did to help us? Seriously.

I urge the Bennett Freeze Diné to once again unite. The Navajo Nation government won’t listen to just one or two or three of us, but will listen if there are thousands of us raising these questions with one voice.

I find it suspicious that the questions raised by Mr. Billy Reese Kee were not answered by the officials it was directed to (last week’s edition of the Navajo Times letters to the editor).

We were so happy to learn the freeze was lifted, but now we are relegated to the back of the line again while we try to figure out who has the money that was supposed to help us after 40 years of injustice. Thank you for hanging in with me in reading this lengthy letter.

Rita Bilagody
Colorado Springs, Colo.
(Hometown: Tuba City)




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