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Administration's Position on Hopi-Navajo Dispute

September 06, 1986

In recent months the media and other outside groups have introduced the public to a century-old land dispute between two Arizona Indian tribes--the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Nation. Out of this publicity has grown misunderstanding and mistrust. As this Administration's assistant secretary for Indian affairs, I would like to make a few comments that explain the past, present and future of this very complex issue.

The resettlement of Hopi and Navajo Indians is not a recent government initiative. It is the result of a more than 100-year-old dispute between two tribes over land both claim to own. It is a dispute in which both tribes have suffered but neither has been able to resolve through tribal negotiations.

At issue is not who owns what land. Congress decided that in its 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, which partitioned the disputed land and required that the Navajo and the Hopi tribes vacate the other's land. The court system also has ruled on the issue. The only remaining question is this: Can the federal government, the public and both tribes work together on carrying out the law in a humane and timely fashion?

The 1974 act allowed the tribes time to settle the issue on their own. When negotiations between the two tribal governments broke off, the United States was forced to step in. Since then, all of the Hopi families have left Navajo land and only about 200 Navajo families remain to be relocated.

Those Navajo people who remain on Hopi land will not be forced to leave. They are being offered the opportunity, however, to accept new housing, grazing lands and other benefits on the Navajo reservation. These benefits cannot be made available at their present location because of poor quality land and the ongoing ownership dispute.

As an Indian and public servant, I truly empathize with the families who have relocated. In my visits with both tribes I have found distress. Nevertheless, we cannot turn back the hands of time. We cannot force the tribes to negotiate. We cannot undo the sufferings of Navajo and Hopi families who have relocated over the years.

There is, however, much good we can do in carrying out relocation. We are preparing homes that meet the needs of the people. We are developing lands that will feed their herds. We are providing intensive group and individual counseling while involving families in decisions that affect their future.

As in many emotional issues, several outside groups are profiting from the heartache of Hopi and Navajo families. These groups, most of them uninvited and non-Indian, are spending great sums of money to organize protests that do more to prolong the distress than to end it. These so-called support groups would do more in the way of support if they would reinvest their energies into helping Navajo families in a more constructive way.

This longstanding issue continues to be a drain not only on the resources of the federal government but also on those of the Hopi and Navajo people.



Swimmer is assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian affairs.

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