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110-Year-Old Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute Haunts Tribal Relations : Southwest: Standoff has forced hundreds of Native Americans to leave their ancestral homes. Those remaining live in squalor.


TUBA CITY, Ariz. — Etta Begay walks to the nearest store, a round trip of about eight miles, nearly every day to buy ice for the two plastic picnic coolers that serve as her family's refrigerator.

"If we don't have any money on a certain day, we don't have any ice," she said. "Then the food goes bad."

Like hundreds of other Navajo Indian families caught up in a land dispute between their tribe and the neighboring Hopis, the Begays live without electricity or telephone. They've been prevented by federal law for more than 25 years from repairing or improving their property without permission from both tribes.

The 110-year-old standoff has forced hundreds of Navajos and scores of Hopis from their traditional homes, while more than 600 Navajo holdouts defiantly continue to live on land Congress has awarded to the Hopis. Despite years of negotiations, legal battles in the federal courts and a series of congressional acts, the dispute seems no closer to resolution.

A court order that would have ended the enforced squalor surrounding the Begays and their neighbors is on hold pending appeal. And a mediated settlement that would have put millions of federal dollars and thousands of acres of public land into settling the overall dispute collapsed this summer, apparently sending the matter back to court.

The fight over a slice of northwestern Arizona high country has its roots in an 1882 order by President Chester A. Arthur that drew a 2.5-million-acre square on the map for the Hopi and "such other Indians as the Secretary of the Interior may see fit to settle thereon."

Navajos lay claim to part of the area, an island in their 14.8-million-acre reservation that spreads across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Years of litigation between the tribes reduced the size of the Hopi reservation and created a "joint use area" of nearly 2 million acres, which Congress partitioned between the tribes in 1974.

Approximately 2,000 Navajo families--as many as 8,000 individuals--and about 160 Hopis found themselves on the wrong side of the new boundaries.

Relocation of the Hopis, traditionally village dwellers and farmers, was accomplished with relative ease. But for the Navajos, who made their meager living primarily by herding sheep and who lived in far-flung family "camps," the relocation would not be so easy.

Almost 20 years after the land was partitioned, hundreds of Navajo families still have not moved and many say they will never leave the land voluntarily.

Both tribes claim strong cultural and spiritual ties to the land where both have lived for generations.

"The Hopis have a covenant to keep this area sacred, not only for the Hopi people, but for all people," said Vernon Masayesva, the Hopi tribal chairman. "It is a spiritual, a religious, obligation."

It is a vast, arid land of dry grasses and pinon pines. The view from horizon to horizon often is unbroken by any man-made structure. There are deep canyons, high, flat mesas and multicolored, conical hills left by volcanic eruptions eons ago.

The Navajos live mostly in small settlements, often at the end of barely passable dirt tracks, with such colorful names as Mosquito Springs, Big Mountain, Coal Mine Mesa, Hard Rocks and Tseetso.

Louise Benally is one of many traditional Navajos who say religion, including an abiding attachment to sacred ancestral sites, makes relocation unthinkable.

"We're told to give up our lifestyle and to move to another place so this land can be open to strip mining and ranchers," said Benally, who lives in a traditional log hogan on Big Mountain, deep in land Congress gave the Hopis. The Hopis live together in villages, most of them atop a series of broad, high mesas.

Given the opportunity, few Hopis would move to the Navajo-occupied land, acknowledged Hopi rancher and businessman Ferrell Sekakuku, a leading hard-liner on the land dispute. But the Hopi tradition and religion are tied to the land in a way that's hard for non-Indians to understand.

"Our physical existence isn't on the land," Sekakuku said. "But we still farm. We still go out and gather objects for religious ceremony purposes. The land is supposed to provide a way for the future."

The federal government is mired in the dispute, both as a steward of Indian land and as a defendant in some of the lawsuits between the tribes. Washington offered to pay the Hopis $15 million as part of a deal worked out between the tribes by a mediator last year.

The proposed settlement angered many non-Indians because it would have given the Hopis federal, state and private land off the reservation that's valued for timber and recreational use. But ultimately it foundered because it offered 75-year leases rather than permanent land allotments to Navajos on land partitioned to the Hopis by the 1974 act of Congress.

Of 208 Navajo families who registered formal opinions on the deal, only one agreed to accept it.

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