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