Homelands in turmoil: Navajo-Hopi feud keeps on growing

Hopi, Navajo, and Anglo cultures are clashing again - or still - in northern Arizona. And it's no minor fender-bending, but rather a collision that could rock families to their roots. A federal district court case now in pretrial stages may bring another round of relocation to the Navajos, the nation's largest native American tribe. The threat comes on the heels of the current relocation that's been dragging on for a decade. Right now, thousands of Navajos are being uprooted in the most massive relocation of any racial group since the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.

The upheaval resulted from 1974 legislation that called for the partitioning of 1.8 million acres of disputed lands. The law pushed more than 11,000 Navajos and about 90 Hopis from their homes. (See story, page 16.)

Now, a new crisis looms that could put more lands on the chopping block. This latest land battle stems from a suit brought by the Hopis, who are claiming about 7 million acres of their Navajo neighbors' territory.

The Hopi suit focuses on 1934 legislation that etched the exterior boundaries of the Navajo reservation. The law set aside territory ``for the benefit of the Navajo and such other Indians as may already be located thereon.'' That ``other Indians'' phrase, which would cause so much trouble later, seemed perfectly natural back then, when it was quite customary to lump all Indian tribes into the same tepee. To carry out the 1934 law, the court will determine what land the Hopis ``occupied, possessed, or used'' on the Navajo reservation in 1934. If the Hopis can prove exclusive use, it's theirs. Any Navajos thereon must move. If exclusive use can't be determined for either tribe, the land may be declared joint or undivided, subject to partition. And that also would trigger forced relocation for Navajos.

It is estimated that about 60,000 Navajos live on the disputed lands. Not so for the Hopis. Except for the century-old village of Moencopi, ``there are no permanent Hopi villages elsewhere in the 1934 reservation,'' acknowledges David Warren, a Denver lawyer for the Hopi. The Hopis, however, ``made use of the land in various ways [in 1934] such as farming, grazing animals, hunting, gathering, and religious, and cultural uses,'' he explains.

``The reality today is that there are very few Hopis out there [in the disputed area],'' says Sandra Massetto, a lawyer and member of the Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation Commission. ``When you're in a court of law ... there may be other relevant information, but you're tied to a standard or precedent.''

Only Congress can change its own language. And two congressmen attempted to do just that last year. Rep. Morris Udall (D) of Arizona introduced a bill designed to curb current and future relocations by providing for a land exchange between the tribes. The bill also called for giving the Hopi about 79,000 acres, including their village of Moencopi, plus a monetary settlement from the Navajo tribe. In return, the Hopis were to drop their lawsuits against the Navajos, which claim millions in damages. The bill, however, had limp support, and Representative Udall withdrew it. Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) made a try with a similar bill, but Congress adjourned before it could be introduced.

So a legislative resolution to the issue now sits on congressional back burners - while a judicial one is moving ahead.

``We [the Hopi tribe] totally opposed the legislation that was introduced last year,'' says Bertha Torres, press woman for the Hopis. She explains that it's against traditional Hopi beliefs to exchange or sell lands. ``That 79,000 [acres] is not what the Hopi tribe can prove in court that they have occupied. They can prove they've occupied much more than that. That's why the lawsuit is for 7 million acres'' - an area amounting to nearly half the Navajo lands.

Public Law 93-531, passed in 1974, gave Hopis the right to bring suit for lands in the 1934 act. The Hopi tribe filed shortly thereafter; the case is just now coming to the fore. The Navajos have endured several forced relocations during more than a century. In 1864 they were rounded up and marched to Fort Sumner, N.M., to be transformed into farmers.

But the government's experiment didn't work. About half the 8,000 Navajos died, and the rest were sent home. A century later, the Navajo dream of a secure home in a familiar land is still proving elusive.

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