McCain bill would dissolve U.S. relocation office


July 28, 2005
Navajo Times

WASHINGTON - The Navajo Nation would support a proposal by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to dissolve the federal Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation Office but only if further hardship is eliminated and the action is not simply to save money, according to a news release from the Navajo Nation President’s office.

McCain, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, received testimony July 21 on his proposal to amend the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act.

His proposal (S. 1003) would dissolve the relocation office as of Sept. 30, 2008, and its remaining duties would be transferred to a new division within the Interior Department.

During the July 21 hearing, McCain said the program has cost too much and lasted too long. The program, passed by Congress over the objections of the Navajo Nation, was proposed as a $40 million program to build homes and move 10,000 Navajos and about 100 Hopis over 12 years.

It has ballooned to $483 million and has lasted 30 years and is still incomplete.

Testifying before McCain’s committee were President Joe Shirley Jr., Hopi Chairman Wayne Taylor, Navajo Nation Navajo-Hopi Land Commission Director Roman Bitsuie, and Navajo Nation Attorney General Louis Denetsosie.

Shirley said the Navajo Nation would support the bill as long as any proposed solution does not cause more hardships for affected residents, and that closure of the program not stem merely from a desire to save money for the federal government.

Taylor said the Hopi Tribe’s position is to see all relocations completed before the office is closed.

“Evictions should be mandatory,” Taylor said.

Shirley said, “Now that the Navajo people have had to live through the nightmare of relocation, we do not think federal budgetary issues alone should be a basis for limiting funds to complete the program, and doing so in a way that brings humanity to what has otherwise been an inhumane process.”

When asked by McCain whether the relocation program was voluntary, Christopher Bavasi, the federal relocation office director, said it was, somewhat.

“This was something less than a voluntary program but it has been operated as a voluntary program,” he said.

Bavasi said the program has also been encumbered by continuous court battles.

“In hindsight, maybe we shouldn’t have pass the law in the first place,” McCain remarked.

Shirley said another concern is the 1.5-million-acre Bennett Freeze, which was instituted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and prohibited all development and improvements since 1966.

Calling the Bennett Freeze “horrendous,” “a national shame” and a “disgrace,” McCain asked Shirley whether he believed the freeze should be lifted.

“Yes, I’d like to see it lifted,” Shirley said. “I think that’s what’s needed.”

However, Bavasi said it “wouldn’t be wise” to pass a law specifically to lift the Bennett Freeze, saying it could result in chaos. However Navajo officials said that did not occur when the freeze was temporarily lifted in 1993.

Denetsosie said that the Navajo Nation has paid the Hopi Tribe $29 million in payments and spent more than $800,000 in attorney fees as a result of the relocation act.

He added that there are 296 late applicants currently in process before the federal relocation office that may be certified for benefits. But almost none could be certified by the Sept. 30, 2005, deadline, he said.

He said the Paragon Ranch in New Mexico had been purchased for the Navajo Nation with the intention that its coal reserves be used for the Navajos. But the land has yet to be transferred to the nation, he said.

McCain said the relocation act is an example in which “the law of unintended consequences” may have prevailed.

“No one thought in 1974 that these issues would be unresolved” in 2005, he said. “I’d like to put these issues behind us so we can begin to provide health care and housing that is terribly behind the rest of the country.”


         Originally found in the July 28, 2005 edition of the Navajo Times

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