Hopi-Navajo Standoff

A PLAN for settling a 110-year-old territorial dispute between Hopi and Navajo Indians in northeast Arizona apparently has bitten the dust.

The complex and controversial agreement, reached in secret talks guided by a federal mediator, was widely praised when first announced Nov. 23. It involved ceding some 540,000 acres of high-country public land to the Hopis, whose reservation is surrounded by Navajo territory.

Besides the land, the Hopis were to receive $15 million - compensation for areas encroached upon by the sheep-herding Navajos.

The Hopis, in turn, agreed to allow 250 Navajo families now living on Hopi land to hold on to it for 75 more years.

For a short time the agreement, which required approval by Congress and the US president, appeared to have achieved the near-impossible. But many Arizonans opposed a key part of the plan - taking public land to provide the Hopis with territory not hemmed-in by Navajo land.

Dissenters, mostly white property owners but also including both Hopis and Navajo, soon made their outrage known. Arizona's two US senators, John McCain (R) and Dennis DeConcini (D), and Gov. Fife Symington (R) found themselves in the middle of an imbroglio.

For the moment, what had appeared to be a possible precedent-setter for putting old injustices suffered by native Americans - in the Eastern as well as the Western US - goes onto the shelf, one more sad reminder that good intentions have to be backed by a more open negotiating approach.

It should never be forgotten that the exercise of fundamental American traditions such as open discussion and decisionmaking has sustained the nation through many challenging situations.

The disappointment in Arizona this time may yet yield to determined hope and better-informed reason. Both the Hopi and Navajo people deserve better.

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