Supreme Court rejects Navajo case

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APRIL 3, 2001

Navajo families and activists disputing an agreement which would move them off Hopi tribal land in Arizona had their freedom of religion challenge rejected by the Supreme Court on Monday.

By doing so, the Supreme Court let stand an appeals court ruling which dismissed the case altogether. In April 2000, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Hopi Tribe was an indispensable party to the case but could not be sued due to sovereign immunity.

The Navajo residents of Hopi Partitioned Land, or HPL, however, have viewed their dispute as one between themselves and the United States government. Known as the Manybeads case, it was filed 13 years ago to challenge the 1974 federal law which requires them to move off the land.

The residents, most of whom are sheepherders, have argued the law violates their Constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion. If they are required to move, they say they won't have access to ancestral land they consider sacred.

A federal court in Arizona disagreed and in 1989 ruled the residents didn't have valid claims. Subsequently, the residents, the Hopi Tribe, and the Navajo Nation began negotiations to find a resolution to the issue.

The talks resulted in what is now known as the Accommodation Agreement. Among other provisions, it requires the residents to sign 75-year leases with the Hopi Tribe and it was successfully pushed through Congress by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), becoming law in 1996.

While some families accepted the agreement, the Manybeads plaintiffs withdrew support, leading to their challenge remaining in the court system. But their arguments were dealt a major blow when an Arizona federal court in 1999 rejected a similar case, Clinton v. Babbitt, due to lack of involvement of the Hopi Tribe.

So when the Manybeads case finally made it to the 9th Circuit, it was quickly dismissed on the same grounds. Since then, the residents have been given various deadlines to sign the agreement or be removed by the federal government.

So far, no formal eviction orders have been requested by the US Attorneys Office in Arizona. The last official deadline for relocation was February 1, 2000.

In a letter to supporters of the remaining residents last spring, McCain reiterated his support for the law he helped pass and said repeal of it, or the 1974 law, would "would lead to a return to the failed policy of joint use and lead to more conflict." McCain said Congress would continue to evaluate how relocation is carried out, however.

Since 1974, about 14,000 Navajo tribal members have been relocated. Several thousand Hopi tribal members have relocated as well.

Lee Phillips, an Arizona attorney for the 17 Manybeads plaintiffs, did not return calls seeking comment. The Hopi Tribe was unavailable for comment.

Get the Manybeads case:
Manybeads v. US No. 9015003 (9th Circuit Court of Appeals April 18, 2000)
Manybeads v. US (730 F. Supp. 1515 October 20, 1989)

Relevant Links:
Accommodation Agreement -
Information on Hopi-Navajo Land Dispute (by the late Paula Giese) -
The Hopi Tribe -
The Navajo Nation -
The Supreme Court -