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Trying to be rebuild after 40 frozen years

A 1966 ban on development in a disputed tribal area left many Navajo living in third-world conditions -- or forced them out entirely. When the freeze ended, many residents didn't know where to begin.

November 05, 2009|Kate Linthicum

CAMERON, ARIZ. — This is the land where Larry Gordy was destined to live, until it was made unlivable.

The Navajo believe that a person will always be tied to the place where his or her umbilical cord is buried. When Gordy was born in 1968, his father put his in this rust-colored dirt. It was here on the family's ranch on the edge of the Painted Desert that his father dreamed of one day building homes for his children, and of tilling a field where watermelon and corn could grow.

But the Gordys were forced to put their dreams on hold. In 1966, the commissioner of Indian Affairs, Robert Bennett, halted development on 1.6 million acres of tribal land in northeastern Arizona that was claimed by both the Navajo nation and the Hopi tribe. Bennett imposed the ban to stop either tribe from taking advantage of the other while they negotiated ownership.

The ban became known as the Bennett Freeze. It meant the Gordys and the 8,000 or so other Navajos living on the land couldn't erect homes, open businesses or even repair their roofs. No roads or schools were built, no electric, gas or water lines were permitted.

The land dispute dragged on for 40 years, paralyzing residents in a state of poverty rarely seen in America. Because few Hopis lived on the disputed territory, the ban affected mostly Navajos like the Gordys, who deserted their ranch after it fell into disrepair.

The tribes settled their differences in 2006 -- most of the land went to the Navajo -- and in May, President Obama cleared the way for federal funding to help rehabilitate the area, but no money has been earmarked yet.

Navajo officials hope some money may come their way. But as politicians grapple with how to spend any funds, the people face a question of their own: Is it possible to make up for 40 years of nothing?


Gordy is now 41, with a wife and four children. They live in a drafty trailer in the town of Cameron, a 30-minute drive from the old ranch. Cameron was also under the Freeze, but in town, at least, the family could string an extension cord from a neighbor's house to get electricity, and draw water from a working well a few miles down the highway. Though it is now free to do so, the family has not made improvements to the trailer. The cash Gordy makes selling firewood, and the money his wife earns selling jewelry to tourists at the Grand Canyon, an hour away, isn't enough.

As often as he can, Gordy brings his children to the ranch, which is scattered with rotting buildings, dirt-caked appliances and rusty car parts, to teach them about their heritage and about the land they were forced to leave.

But he isn't sure where to begin.

"If it wasn't for the Bennett Freeze, we would have a place to live," said Gordy, a large man with a patchy black beard and an amiable manner. "But now we just have a junk pile out here. Now that the freeze is lifted, we're expected to come out here and build something out of all this junk. Well, with what? It'd be like if a rancher penned up a bunch of sheep for 40 years and then all of a sudden one day he opened the fence and let them loose. They wouldn't know what to do. And neither do we."

The Navajo nation, whose territory sprawls 27,000 square miles across three states, is America's largest tribe, and one of its poorest and most isolated. The tribe only recently opened its first casino, and unemployment hovers about 50%. Many people still live without electricity and plumbing. But even by Navajo standards, the conditions in the former Bennett Freeze region are astonishing.

A study commissioned by the Navajo found that only 24% of the houses in the area are habitable. Most homes lack plumbing, and while a third of the residents haul in potable water, others resort to drinking from the same wells as their livestock -- water that in some cases is contaminated with bacteria or uranium.

Nearly 60% of houses lack electricity, even as steel power lines strung across the land buzz with the energy they carry from the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Ariz., south to Phoenix and west to Los Angeles.

But on a recent afternoon, on a high, dust-blown plain known as Black Falls, the sounds of promise rang out from a rooftop. Two men, sweating in the sun, had spent all day on top of Mary and John Knight's 47-year-old cinder-block home, hammering down a tarp to protect the roof from the elements. It was a simple act that had been illegal for nearly half a century.

When the freeze was lifted, a local community organizing group informed the Knights that they were now eligible for money from federal programs. They secured roofing materials from a weatherization program and called over some friends to help install it. As a gesture of thanks to the workers, they planned to slaughter a sheep to make mutton stew.

The Knights had tried to fix the roof twice before. Rangers from the Hopi tribe came by each time and told them to stop.


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