The traditionally media-shy Hopi Indians have stepped up efforts to take their case to the American public in their century-old land dispute with the Navajo Indians. The Hopis' public-relations drive is prompted in part by the expectation that the new Congress will consider legislative proposals relating to the dispute.
In recent weeks the Hopis have presented their side of the land controversy at two public forums in Texas and in meetings in California, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Colorado. They are attempting to counter the influence of Navajo lobbying groups and of congressional leaders they consider favoring the Navajo position.
The Hopis' goal is to preserve a land settlement act passed by Congress in 1974 that gave each tribe half of what were formerly joint-use lands in the Arizona reservations.
The land was to have been completely partitioned by July 6 of this year. But more than 200 Navajo families still live on Hopi land, perhaps 70 of whom claim they will never move.
Many Navajos argue that the settlement requires the relocation of Navajos from lands that are sacred to their tribe. They say the statute should be repealed and the land settlement renegotiated. The Navajos earlier this month elected a tribal chairman who supports a harder line on the land dispute than his predecessor.
The Hopis who spoke at a public forum in Austin recently say their religion, which teaches that ``right will prevail,'' had many tribal leaders convinced that efforts to win public opinion were unnecessary. ``The new perspective is that right will prevail, but we've got to go out and help it prevail,'' says Bertha Torres, a public-relations consultant to Hopi tribal leaders.
The Hopis appear especially concerned that the Navajos, by presenting the dispute as a human-rights issue, have made gains in winning public opinion to their side. They see their own position, that the controversy is a legal matter already settled by Congress and the courts, as less emotional and therefore less apt to attract sympathizers.
``The Navajos have been able to utilize the strong impact of the media on Congress. They've been very good at getting their views to the public,'' says Nona Tuchawena, a Hopi tribal council representative. She adds that the ready access reporters and photographers have been given by the Navajos to families facing relocation has ``sensationalized'' the issue.
``We've never really gone out to tell our side of the story,'' says Jerry Sekayumptewa, a spokesman for the chief of the Hopis' First Mesa. ``But the elders are realizing that if we remain quiet much longer, the world may come to the conclusion that [the Navajos] are right and we could lose more land.''
Since 1882, Hopi land has been reduced to less than one-fourth of its original size, while Navajo holdings have continued to grow.
The Hopis' newest efforts come amid several developments that, they fear, could work to their disadvantage. Democratic control of the Senate may boost the Navajos' cause if, as some observers believe, Democratic legislators are more inclined than Republicans to view the dispute as a human-rights issue.
Some Hopis also think the retirement this year of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) could be detrimental, as the influential senator has been perceived as an impartial, ``honest broker'' in the controversy.
The Hopis say they came to Texas to ``present their case,'' in part because the Navajos had lobbied US Rep. Mickey Leland (D) of Houston to sponsor a bill aimed at repealing the 1974 land settlement. ``We want the people of Texas to know there is more than one side to this issue,'' says Ms. Tuchawena.
Other members of Congress say they are ready to act on the issue. Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston of California is planning to resubmit a bill calling for an 18-month moratorium on all relocations. And a bill sponsored by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona calls for a new land exchange that would reduce Hopi holdings.