Originally Published JAN 2001

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Photo courtesy of SENAA Sweden, Frame by Al Swilling.
Used with permission.


a regular feature of SENAA West


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Navajos' Eviction by U.S. Not Likely

Jerry Kammer
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 29, 2001 

BIG MOUNTAIN - Tension crackled a year ago in the crisp winter air of this high desert rangeland east of the Grand Canyon. Time was running out for Roberta Blackgoat and other Navajos defying an order from Washington to leave their homes by last Feb. 1.

Blackgoat, an 83-year-old widow, dug in. Supporters from across the United States and foreign countries joined in denouncing
relocation as a human rights violation. Rumors swelled that federal marshals were on their way with eviction orders.

Roberta Blackgoat at her 
Thin Rock Mesa Home

The deadline passed without serious incident.

A year later, Blackgoat says her failing health - not the federal law - may force her to leave her home, a three-room stone building on a piņon-studded ridge 15 miles from the nearest paved road.

"That would make it easier for me to go to the hospital once in a while," Blackgoat said, drawing a strand of gray wool through the loom next to her bed in a room illuminated by a gas lamp and heated by a wood-burning stove. "Some people over by Red Lake want me to move with them."

The story of Blackgoat and her confrontation with the federal government is symbolic of the recent history of the long and often bitter Navajo-Hopi land dispute. It is a story of a traditional Navajo clinging to the only life she knows. It also is the story of federal officials whose job it is to enforce the law but who are working patiently with the resisters, some of the most traditional Indians in the United States.

"Nobody wants to see any of them hurt," said Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., the only American Indian in the U.S. Senate. "They have traditions that go back long before we even had a government in America, and I think we have to respect those traditions. We have to move very slowly."

Under a federal law, Blackgoat's land now belongs to the neighboring Hopis, who also hold the land sacred and who have lived in the area far longer. Congress in 1974 divided nearly 2 million disputed acres equally between the two tribes and began relocating those on the wrong side of the partition line. Because Navajos had settled almost the entire area, relocation has hit them harder.

It is a force that denies what Navajos call their own laws - their behasaani, literally " things to go by." They say Navajo religion binds them to the land, with its belief that the Diyiin Dine, the Holy People, live in the springs and the canyons and the mesas.

As the deadline loomed a year ago, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Lodge, who is overseeing enforcement of the congressional mandate for relocation, said he would seek a court order to evict the resisters. Other Navajos, having signed an "accommodation agreement" that acknowledged Hopi ownership of the land, were allowed to stay as tenants.

But Lodge still has not sought the eviction order. He said last week that he's not sure when he will.

Campbell, a Northern Cheyenne, says openly what some government officials have acknowledged privately: Sending in U.S. marshals to enforce the relocation would be an international disgrace.

"If you ever saw law enforcement go in there and drag grandmothers out of their traditional homes, that would create the biggest backlash you've ever seen," Campbell said. "That simply is not going to happen."

What has happened over the past two decades is that about 14,000 Navajos have relocated. The federal government, after acknowledging that its own bungling had created the problem, has spent nearly $500 million in the effort. Ironically, government-purchased relocation homes have provided many young and educated Navajos a leg up on the American dream. Most have settled into new homes in towns like Flagstaff and Winslow. Others have moved to Phoenix and Los Angeles.

But for most elderly Navajos, relocation is a wretched uprooting. It has spawned hundreds of stories of relocatees who have died of broken hearts or alcohol. Some have been swindled out of their new homes by border town loan sharks. Many complain they cannot adjust to subdivisions where there is no room for sheep or corn, where property taxes and utility bills demand money they don't have, where the doors don't face east so they can greet the new sun with the dawn prayer and a sprinkle of corn pollen from a buckskin pouch.

"Relocation is about the worst thing you can do to traditional people who are tied to the land," said Thayer Scudder, a California Institute of Technology anthropologist who has studied relocation projects around the world. Most made room for developments such as dams.

Scudder long has been a critic of the Navajo relocation.

"It has amounted to an unintended form of ethnic cleansing," he said.

Congress ordered Navajo relocation in response to an argument by Hopi leaders that their cultural survival was at stake. A much smaller tribe, which has historically lived in mesa-top villages and relied on farming for survival, the Hopis complained that they had been pushed to the wall by the rapid expansion of the sheepherding Navajos. The Hopis, who now number about 10,000, won a stunning political victory over the Navajos, a tribe of more than 200,000.

Repeated calls last week seeking comment from Hopi officials were not returned  But until now, the Hopis have remained patient, both with the Navajos and with the federal government. Tribal leaders have said they have no intention of exercising their power to evict the Navajos. They insist the federal government must ensure their rights are protected. Washington rewarded Hopi acceptance of the "accommodation agreement" with a $50 million payment.

Meanwhile, Lodge, the assistant U.S. attorney, is pursuing a new idea to avoid an eviction showdown. He has proposed that Navajo tribal leaders sign an agreement to cover all the resisters. The Navajos have expressed interest, but are reluctant to impose such an agreement over people who already blame them for losing the battle in Congress.

"The federal government is exploring every conceivable option to avoid violence," Lodge said. But he noted that the resisters are trespassers on Hopi land.

"If we can't resolve the issue, then ultimately the only option left will be to seek an eviction order," he said.

At her loom on Big Mountain, Blackgoat said that even if she moves closer to the hospital, she will return every chance she gets.

"The main thing is this is where I been born and been told how to use this land," she said in broken English. Unlike many of her neighbors, Blackgoat speaks English, which she learned during several years at a government school in the 1920s.

"It's really thick in my mind now, so I have to hold tight to it," Blackgoat said. "These trees, these sheep - they know me and I know them."

Reach the reporter at or 1-(703) 292-7661.


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© January, 2001. All Rights Reserved.


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