McCain proposes closing federal relocation office



WINDOW ROCK – If U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has his way, officials for the federal Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation Office will lock their doors for the last time on Sept. 30, 2008.

McCain has introduced legislation before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to shut down the Flagstaff-based program within four years, saying he feels it has accomplished its mission and should go quietly into the night.

Officials of the federal program say McCain may be right.

Since its formation in 1976, the office has processed the relocation of hundreds of Navajos (and a few Hopis) from the Navajo-Hopi Joint Use Area – some with their consent but many without.

It was at one time the most hated program in the U.S. government, with members of the American Indian Movement vowing that if massive forced relocation ever occurred on the disputed lands they would give their lives to stop it.

No massive relocation ever occurred and no one gave his or her life for the cause. Instead, it occurred by attrition and in small increments, with reports in the early years that some of the elderly who were forced to relocate died shortly thereafter from sadness and depression.

Mike McCalister, the office’s deputy director, has been working for the program since 1980. He said Tuesday that Sept. 30, 2009, might be a realistic termination date.

McCain proposed a similar resolution in 1996 but then the Navajos and Hopis reached the “accommodation agreement,” which basically set up life estates – the right for existing residents to remain in their homes for the rest of their lives – ending the threat of forced relocation.

The decision was made to allow the relocation office to continue indefinitely until it could complete work on relocations already in the works.

McCalister said the office now has less than 100 relocations still active and those families have been told to come in and clear up the paperwork so they could be relocated by 2006.

Since the program provides assistance for two years following a relocation, most books would be closed by the proposed 2008 termination date.

Ironically, there is some opposition for the termination of the program and it’s coming from the Navajo and Hopi tribes.

This is ironic since for decades the Navajo Nation bitterly opposed the program.

Now in recent meetings with Congress and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, leaders of both tribes have urged the government to continue the program.

The tribes have come to see the program as a way to get federal funding for housing and other services, McCalister said.

As relocation efforts have diminished over the years, so has the program’s funding. This year, the program received a budget of about $9 million.

On Wednesday, a Navajo tribal official said the tribe has not yet decided on an official position in the matter.

Roman Bitsuie, director of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission Office, said President Joe Shirley Jr. Is meeting with the appropriate committees to decide what position the tribe should take on the termination of the federal program.


Originally published in The Navajo Times, June 9, 2005

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