TUBA CITY, Ariz. — Marie Johnson's small, cluttered home is badly in need of repair. Many of the floor tiles are missing, a broken window is held together with masking tape and Johnson says the roof leaks when it rains. There is no running water or indoor plumbing.
Johnson is one of about 2,500 Navajos who live in a roughly 80-by-70-mile area on the western edge of the Navajo Reservation, enduring what tribal President Peterson Zah describes as "the worst housing conditions in America."
For more than 25 years, residents of the 1.5 million-acre area have been prevented by law from repairing or expanding their homes, drilling wells, installing water or electricity or making any other improvements.
The construction freeze was ordered in 1966 by Robert Bennett, a Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioner, in response to pressure from the Hopi tribe, which claimed ownership to much of the area located due west of the Hopi Reservation. The freeze later was enacted into law by Congress.
A federal judge settled the dispute in September, 1992, awarding nearly all of the land to the Navajos. But the freeze, technically lifted by the ruling, remains in effect pending the outcome of an appeal by the Hopis.
The Navajos are seeking $21.5 million from the federal government to begin a rebuilding process tribal officials estimate eventually could cost $300 million.
In the meantime, hundreds of families continue to live in the squalor of ramshackle homes with few modern conveniences. Fewer than 10% have running water and only 3% have electricity, according to a tribal survey.
"Some families have even lived in ditches covered with canvas because they believed such below-ground homes were not considered construction under the terms of the Bennett freeze," Zah says.
The tribe also says health has become a major concern in the area. There are few doctors, tribal officials say, and local clinics lack specialized equipment. They say disease can take hold quickly in the area because of the crowded living conditions, the lack of water, sewers and other sanitary facilities and electricity for refrigeration.
Johnson's home has electricity but no water. She says her water pipes burst several years ago and she was not allowed to make repairs.
Now, she says through an interpreter, family members haul her water in buckets from a spring six miles away. She cooks on a small, wood-burning stove that also provides the only heat for the house. In the summer, she says, she cooks outside over an open fire.