These Navajo families have been ordered to evacuate their homes.
PHOTO: DAN BUDNIK
“Relocation" is a word with which many Native Americans are all too familiar. Yet it is no longer merely a historical term, as land disputes in the Black Mountain region of Arizona, to this day, are forcing hundreds of families off land to which they lay a historical and spiritual claim. While the conflict appears to be between Navajos living on Hopi land and Hopis who wish to use the land for their own purposes, the dispute is complicated by the land's tremendous mineral resources. The heart of the matter is that the Hopis have leased mineral and water rights to Peabody Mining Co., whose efforts to strip-mine the area southeast of the Grand Canyon are at the moment being stalled by ten Navajo families resisting orders to evacuate these lands.
The Hopi Indian reservation was established in Arizona in 1882 through Executive Order under President Chester A. Arthur. The Navaho Indians migrated onto this land; throughout the years, the Navaho reservation was expanded onto Hopi lands through a series of Executive Orders. In 1962, the Hopi filed a lawsuit in an attempt to regain their land, but by then the Navaho had acquired squatters' rights to 911,000 acres of the original 1882 Hopi reservation. In 1974, the Navaho—Hopi Land Settlement Act was passed, which divided the 1882 reservation in half. Each tribe was to relocate to their respective partition land. Due mainly to religious and ancestral ties, some Navaho resisters have refused to relocate. The number of resisters still on the land has fallen off from two hundred families a year ago to ten today, but many former resisters who have left remain opposed to Hopi control over the land.
The Hopi Tribal Council proposed the Accommodations Agreements to the Navaho families in 1995. These agreements are individual leases that provide the Navaho families on Hopi Partition Land (HPL) with the option to sign a seventy-five-year lease that will grant each family a three-acre homesite and a ten-acre farmsite. In addition, the Navaho living on the HPL are expected to meet certain conditions. These conditions include reducing livestock herds to numbers that, the Navajo argue, do not meet subsistence levels, as well as restricting the burying of deceased tribal members on the land. After three violations, the Navajo again face eviction.
The deadline to sign the lease or agree to relocate was on March 31, 1997, and resisters have been provided with a second deadline by which to leave the land: January 1, 2000. As of now, the approximately ten resisting families are finding that harsh conditions make residing on the land difficult. For example, they are restricted from legally collecting wood. Wood permits were denied and threats of arrest were made by the Hopi tribal rangers for violations of this law. Also, inhabitants are now being charged for the coal they once received free.
Black Mesa, Arizona, encompassing the disputed land and rich in low-sulfur coal, has been excavated by the Peabody Western Coal Company for about twenty—five years now. Arlene Hamilton, a human rights worker closely involved with Dineh (Navajo) traditionalist women, explains how the Peabody Coal Company has depleted the Navaho water supply. Water sources that haven't dried up are contaminated. She describes the Hopi Tribal Council as a puppet government that is eliminating native residents in order to make money.
Bahe Katenay, involved with the Dineh as a translator, says the Peabody Coal Company has destroyed the natural terrain with its twenty-four-hour mining operation. He claims they are illegally dumping petroleum waste-products on the land. He says conditions resulting from the mining have caused sickness and death in livestock, and possibly respiratory problems in humans, as well.
Beth Ulinger, spokesperson for Peabody, denies the charges, saying that the company has an excellent environmental program with a team of scientists whose work is geared toward assuring environmental responsibility. "We are proud of the mining we're doing there,” she explains. Peabody leases the land from the tribes, and any mining must first be approved by the tribal governments. Ulinger says the land that is mined is later reclaimed and restored to provide grazing and habitat for wildlife.
Robert Carolin, Bureau of Indian Affairs area superintendent, speculated that most families would leave by the deadline, but he can think of a few who have stood firmly all along and may resist to the very end. He believes many of the families "have been given some bad information.” He claims they have been led to believe they can negotiate a better deal, but says that the Hopi Council is ready to end this debate once and for all.
A lawsuit, filed in October of last year by the Navaho families on HPL, claims that documents have been withheld from them in the signing process. They also claim to have been subject to false information and abuse.
Kim Secakuku, Staff Assistant to the Hopi Tribe, explains the cultural differences between the two tribes that make sharing the land difficult. "They take over whatever they like." She says the nomadic and aggressive nature of the Navaho conflict with the agricultural and communal practices of the Hopi. "We always tried to take into consideration their way of life, but their way of life is not always compatible with the Hopi.”
The Navaho-Hopi relocation is often referred to as a conflict. However, area residents Marlene Benally and her husband, John Roy, point out that historically there is no record of conflict between the Hopi and Navaho. The term conflict actually originated in discussions between the Peabody Coal Company and the U.S. government. And thus was born the largest civilian movement of citizens since the Japanese forced migration of World War II.