Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and retired Lt. Col. Tracey Clyde stand in reverence after laying the wreaths at the Navajo Veterans Memorial Park during a Memorial Day event in Window Rock, Arizona, on May 28, 2018. Photo: Office of the President and Vice President

Navajo Nation objects as Trump team seeks to 'close out' relocation office

The Navajo Nation is calling on its citizens to help prevent the Trump administration from shutting down a federal agency linked to a once-bitter land dispute.

The proposal to "close out" the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (ONHIR) surfaced in the administration's fiscal year 2019 budget earlier this year. Plans call for its functions to be transferred to the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, another agency at the Department of the Interior.

But President Russell Begaye is calling the proposal premature and one crafted without consultation. He has scheduled four meetings on the reservation next month in order to build a case for saving the office, which he said has failed to complete its mission.

“Those who have been impacted by the relocation need to continue to submit their information. This information is important for us to advocate to ONHIR directly,” Begaye said on Thursday. “We will continue to hold ONHIR responsible in fulfilling their obligations to our people who were impacted by relocation.”

Photos of a hogan, a traditional Navajo home, and a newer home in a Government Accountability Office report drew objections from Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye. He said the photos create a "biased impression" of federal relocation efforts. Source: GAO-18-266

Congress established the ONHIR in 1974 in order to carry out a settlement between the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe and the federal government. The tribes had been locked in a protracted dispute over the use of land in northeastern Arizona that was originally set aside by an executive order in 1882.

More than four decades after the settlement, key issues related to housing, infrastructure and economic development remain unresolved. The Hopi Tribe, for instance, is still waiting on the government to fulfill a promise to acquire new lands in Arizona.

Part of the reason for the lingering work is that the scale of the effort was vastly underestimated. According to an April report from the Government Accountability Office, lawmakers at the time of the 1974 settlement believed it would take five years to relocate 1,000 tribal families from disputed lands to other parts of the Hopi and Navajo reservations.

Instead, the ONHIR has relocated 3,660 Navajo and 27 Hopi families, the report states. And about $600 million in federal funds have been spent in the last 44 years, with no apparent end in sight.

"ONHIR’s relocation process was originally scheduled to end in July 1986, but the process is ongoing and ONHIR continues to operate," the report reads.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye testifies about the Trump administration's reorganization and the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation on May 10, 2018

As of December 2017, the GAO said, 20 families are still waiting relocation and another 25 are appealing decisions made pursuant to the settlement. But even if those cases are resolved soon, the ONHIR has other activities on its plate, according to the report, including the management of a cattle ranch described in budget documents as a "demonstration project."

The Padres Mesa Ranch appears to be a success, though. According to Congressional testimony from the executive director of the ONHIR, the operation is "self-supporting."

If lawmakers go along with the Trump team's budget request, the ranch would be overseen by the Office of the Special Trustee (OST). But that agency is on the chopping block as well under a different act of Congress, President Begaye pointed out.

“In addition to objecting to the premature termination of ONHIR, it is also very concerning to me that there was no consultation with the Navajo Nation before a decision was made to turn over ONHIR’s planning and land management responsibilities to the Office of Special Trustee,” Begaye said. “We will work with all of these offices to defend the interests of the Navajo people.”

Begaye isn't the only one concerned either. The Navajo Nation Council, the tribe's legislative body enacted a resolution earlier this month opposing the closure of the ONHIR.

On the same day Legislation No. 0130-18 cleared its final hurdle, tribal leaders met with key federal officials, "reminding them to provide adequate tribal consultation with Navajo Nation before taking any significant actions involving ONHIR,” said Council Delegate Walter Phelps, the sponsor of the bill.

The Navajo Nation's ONHIR Transition Task Force, which was created by Begaye in 2016, will host four meetings next month. The schedule follows:

• June 2 - Nahatah Dzill Chapter House @ 9:00 a.m.
• June 9 – Tuba City Chapter House @ 9:00 a.m.
• June 16 – Hard Rock Chapter House @ 9:00 a.m.
• June 17 – Piñon Chapter House @ 9:00 a.m.

Written statements are also being accepted by mail. They can addressed to the Office of the President and Vice President: P.O. Box 7440, Window Rock, AZ 86515

The meetings are open to all relocatees, their beneficiaries and any other interested parties.

Government Accountability Office Report:
OFFICE OF NAVAJO AND HOPI INDIAN RELOCATION: Executive Branch and Legislative Action Needed for Closure and Transfer of Activities (April 24, 2018)

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