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The Rise of Tribes and the Fall of Federal Indian Law
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McCain prods tribes, government on tribal land dispute
Friday, July 22, 2005

Indianz.Com Listening Lounge, Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Navajo-Hopi land settlement. July 21, 2005
Note: All files in MP3 format.
Introduction - 7:22 - 1.26MB
Panel I - 17:45 - 3.04MB
Panel II - 31:07 - 5.34MB | Q&A - 16:15 - 2.79MB
After spending $483 million over the last 30 years, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) on Thursday called on the relocation of Navajo and Hopi families to come to an end.

McCain said the program was only supposed to cost $40 million and take several years. Instead, the process has dragged on for decades with no apparent end in sight, he said.

"It's gonna be over, it's gonna to be over, it's gonna be over," the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee said at the onset of a hearing in Washington. "It's time it ended. It's time that we brought to a conclusion this tragedy that has afflicted human beings on the Navajo and Hopi reservations for too long."

Representatives of the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe agreed that relocation has caused suffering and numerous problems. They said hundreds of families have been uprooted from their homes as a result of a long-running dispute over the ownership of lands within the two reservations.

Disagreements, however, came on whether the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission should be given more time to complete its duties and whether the tribes should be allowed to work out any remaining differences. These concerns were closely linked to the separate but related issue of the "Bennett Freeze," a Bureau of Indian Affairs policy from 1966 that limits Navajo Nation development on disputed lands.

Joe Shirley Jr., the president of the Navajo Nation, charged that his tribe has shouldered the brunt of the dispute. He said the Navajos opposed the legislation that created the program and actively sought its repeal.

"Had the Navajo Nation been successful [in those efforts], the Navajo people would have been spared tremendous harm and the federal government would have been spared a great expense," he testified. "That 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 to limiting the program." Two other Navajo witnesses provided testimony along similar lines.

Wayne Taylor Jr., the chairman of the Hopi Tribe, said that ending the program before the relocation is completed would hurt his tribe, which has a much smaller land base than the Navajo Nation. Although fewer Hopi families have been moved, he said the tribe has lost 40 percent of its original reservation.

"Hopi people years ago moved off disputed Navajo lands," he told the committee. "However, more than 30 years [later] we are still waiting for the Navajo to move off Hopi land."

Ending the relocation would "reward" those Navajos who have refused to move or recognize the Hopi's rights, he added. Taylor was the only Hopi on the witness list.

Two federal witnesses said they wanted to see the relocation end. They had some concerns about specific provisions in the bill McCain introduced, and urged him to give the tribes more breathing room, particularly in their efforts to resolve the Bennett Freeze.

Christopher Bavasi, the executive director of the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation, was confident the program could be completed by September 30, 2008, the date specified in the bill.

Pat Ragsdale, the director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the agency supports the legislation if it forces the government to complete its job.

Before, after and during the testimony, McCain was adamant about ending the matter. "Maybe the lesson is you shouldn't try to settle land dispute through legislation," he said of the 1974 bill that led to the current situation.

"There is a limited amount of taxpayer dollars that could be devoted to worthy causes on both the Navajo and Hopi reservations -- educational facilities, health care facilities, housing, many others," he added.

McCain said he would introduce a separate bill to address the Bennett Freeze. He appeared to be encouraged that the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation have reached a compact to end the Bennett Freeze. The Hopi Tribe's council has already ratified the deal while the Navajo Nation Council still has to consider it.

While the 1974 legislation was at issue yesterday, the dispute dates back to the late 1800s, when the federal government established reservations for the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe.

The Navajo Reservation covers 18 million in three states. It was established after Navajo leaders and the U.S. signed the Treaty of 1868.

The Hopi Reservation was established by executive order in 1882. The original size was 2.4 million acres but the land base now stands at 1.6 million acres and is completely surrounded on all sides by the Navajo Reservation.

The Hopis lost land because the courts later ruled that the executive order allowed "other Indians" to live on the Hopi Reservation. By that time, the Hopis had been confined to 600,000 acres of the original reservation. The remaining areas were deemed "joint use" by the tribes.

After more litigation and battles, the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement of 1974 authorized the partitioning of the joint use area. The Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation were each restored lands, and the relocation program was created to move Navajo families off Hopi lands and vice versa.

Since then, an estimated 11,000 Navajo and Hopi tribal members have been moved. Hundreds more families -- mostly Navajos -- haven't relocated, either due to lack of money, failure to seek relocation or outright resistance.

No family is forced to move under the program or under a subsequent agreement involving Navajo families who still live on the northern part of the Hopi Reservation. However, some Navajo families refuse to recognize the Hopi Tribe's jurisdiction and won't sign leases that allow them to stay for 75 years.

McCain introduced his settlement bill on May 21. A companion bill has not been introduced in the House.

Get the Bill:
Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Amendments of 2005 (S.1003)

Relevant Documents:
Hearing Before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on S. 1003, Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Amendments of 2005 (July 20, 2005)

Relevant Links:
Hopi Tribe -
Navajo Nation -
Black Mesa Indigenous Support, Navajo family support site -

Related Stories:
Senate hearing on Navajo-Hopi land settlement bill (7/21)
Navajos oppose McCain bill on Navajo-Hopi settlement (7/15)

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