110-Year-Old Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute Haunts Tribal Relations : Southwest: Standoff has forced hundreds of Native Americans to leave their ancestral homes. Those remaining live in squalor.


Etta Begay walks to the nearest store, a round trip of about eight miles, nearly every day to buy ice for the two plastic picnic coolers that serve as her family’s refrigerator.

“If we don’t have any money on a certain day, we don’t have any ice,” she said. “Then the food goes bad.”

Like hundreds of other Navajo Indian families caught up in a land dispute between their tribe and the neighboring Hopis, the Begays live without electricity or telephone. They’ve been prevented by federal law for more than 25 years from repairing or improving their property without permission from both tribes.


The 110-year-old standoff has forced hundreds of Navajos and scores of Hopis from their traditional homes, while more than 600 Navajo holdouts defiantly continue to live on land Congress has awarded to the Hopis. Despite years of negotiations, legal battles in the federal courts and a series of congressional acts, the dispute seems no closer to resolution.

A court order that would have ended the enforced squalor surrounding the Begays and their neighbors is on hold pending appeal. And a mediated settlement that would have put millions of federal dollars and thousands of acres of public land into settling the overall dispute collapsed this summer, apparently sending the matter back to court.

The fight over a slice of northwestern Arizona high country has its roots in an 1882 order by President Chester A. Arthur that drew a 2.5-million-acre square on the map for the Hopi and “such other Indians as the Secretary of the Interior may see fit to settle thereon.”

Navajos lay claim to part of the area, an island in their 14.8-million-acre reservation that spreads across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Years of litigation between the tribes reduced the size of the Hopi reservation and created a “joint use area” of nearly 2 million acres, which Congress partitioned between the tribes in 1974.

Approximately 2,000 Navajo families--as many as 8,000 individuals--and about 160 Hopis found themselves on the wrong side of the new boundaries.


Relocation of the Hopis, traditionally village dwellers and farmers, was accomplished with relative ease. But for the Navajos, who made their meager living primarily by herding sheep and who lived in far-flung family “camps,” the relocation would not be so easy.

Almost 20 years after the land was partitioned, hundreds of Navajo families still have not moved and many say they will never leave the land voluntarily.

Both tribes claim strong cultural and spiritual ties to the land where both have lived for generations.

“The Hopis have a covenant to keep this area sacred, not only for the Hopi people, but for all people,” said Vernon Masayesva, the Hopi tribal chairman. “It is a spiritual, a religious, obligation.”

It is a vast, arid land of dry grasses and pinon pines. The view from horizon to horizon often is unbroken by any man-made structure. There are deep canyons, high, flat mesas and multicolored, conical hills left by volcanic eruptions eons ago.

The Navajos live mostly in small settlements, often at the end of barely passable dirt tracks, with such colorful names as Mosquito Springs, Big Mountain, Coal Mine Mesa, Hard Rocks and Tseetso.


Louise Benally is one of many traditional Navajos who say religion, including an abiding attachment to sacred ancestral sites, makes relocation unthinkable.

“We’re told to give up our lifestyle and to move to another place so this land can be open to strip mining and ranchers,” said Benally, who lives in a traditional log hogan on Big Mountain, deep in land Congress gave the Hopis. The Hopis live together in villages, most of them atop a series of broad, high mesas.

Given the opportunity, few Hopis would move to the Navajo-occupied land, acknowledged Hopi rancher and businessman Ferrell Sekakuku, a leading hard-liner on the land dispute. But the Hopi tradition and religion are tied to the land in a way that’s hard for non-Indians to understand.

“Our physical existence isn’t on the land,” Sekakuku said. “But we still farm. We still go out and gather objects for religious ceremony purposes. The land is supposed to provide a way for the future.”

The federal government is mired in the dispute, both as a steward of Indian land and as a defendant in some of the lawsuits between the tribes. Washington offered to pay the Hopis $15 million as part of a deal worked out between the tribes by a mediator last year.

The proposed settlement angered many non-Indians because it would have given the Hopis federal, state and private land off the reservation that’s valued for timber and recreational use. But ultimately it foundered because it offered 75-year leases rather than permanent land allotments to Navajos on land partitioned to the Hopis by the 1974 act of Congress.


Of 208 Navajo families who registered formal opinions on the deal, only one agreed to accept it.

Navajo President Peterson Zah has offered to reopen negotiations, but the Hopi Tribal Council rejected any discussion of what amounts to Zah’s key proposal--a land swap.

Though they don’t talk of force, many Hopis suggest that the Navajos somehow must be compelled to leave the Hopi land.

“I don’t see any alternative other than to go back and enforce the law,” Hopi Chairman Vernon Masayesva said after talks collapsed.

“The ultimate settlement will be for the Navajo to move,” Sekakuku said. “We have to protect our culture and our religion. We are destined; we have to carry this world into the future.”

A census completed in 1989 found 283 Navajo families, or 615 people, living full time on the Hopi land. Another 317 families, or 952 people, were listed as part-time residents.


But they’re not the only victims of the dispute. The hardship continues for Navajo families that have accepted relocation benefits and moved to government-built homes away from the Hopi lands.

Many of the homes are of poor quality, with cracking foundations and other problems, said Jon Norstog, deputy executive director of the Navajo Nation’s Navajo-Hopi Land Commission.

Those who have abandoned their traditional sheepherding life find there’s no work for them on a reservation with an unemployment rate of 30% or more where many speak only Navajo. Many have never had to pay taxes or utility bills and quickly find themselves in financial trouble, Norstog said.

Betty Tso lives in Tuba City and works for the Navajo legal aid office but grew up in the remote Mosquito Springs area, where her family still lives. She sees little hope for her relatives if they’re forced to leave Hopi land.

“My brothers were raised with livestock,” she said. “That’s what they do. That’s who they are. If you take that away from them, I don’t know what they’ll do.”

Although she believes a settlement is possible, she doubts some traditional Navajos will ever accept it.


“There are a lot of families out there who don’t want to relocate,” she said. “If eviction were ever to come, they believe it will be by force.”

Etta Begay and her family face a different problem. They are among about 2,500 Navajos who live in an area around Tuba City on the western edge of the reservation known as “the Bennett Freeze.”

The area, about 1.5 million acres, was named for Robert Bennett, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioner, who in 1966 ordered a complete freeze on construction pending a final settlement of Hopi and Navajo claims on the land. Congress enacted the freeze into law in 1980.

Navajo President Zah says the freeze brought almost unimaginable hardships for the families living in the area.

Housing conditions are among the worst in the nation, he said. Fewer than 10% of the homes have running water and only 3% have electricity.

There are few doctors and the clinics are primitive. Zah says disease could take hold quickly in the area because of the crowded living conditions and the lack of water, sewers and electricity for refrigeration.


A federal judge awarded most of the land in the freeze area to the Navajos in 1992, but the freeze remains in effect pending a Hopi appeal.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation is planning redevelopment. Zah has asked Congress for $21 million to start a project that could end up costing as much as $300 million.

Begay, her husband, Jack, two children and two grandchildren share a three-room, cinder-block house set among a clump of small, dilapidated buildings and trailers about four miles east of Tuba City.

Aside from a rickety kitchen table and some worn vinyl chairs, the only furniture in what serves as both kitchen and living room is a sagging, threadbare sofa.

Fifteen-year-old Nizbe Begay, a student at Tuba City High School, says she does her homework by the light of a kerosene lamp.

Jack Begay works in Chinle, about 150 miles to the east, and comes home only on weekends.

Etta Begay sees some irony in the situation. Her husband is a carpenter who has built other people’s homes from the ground up, but the law has prevented him from making even basic repairs to his own.


Hopis and Navajos

The Navajo Reservation is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, covering nearly 15 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It completely surrounds the 1.5 million acre Hopi reservation and Navajos outnumber Hopis by nearly 18-1.

Enrolled Tribe population Acreage Hopi 9,199 1,561,213 Navajo 165,065 *14,775,068

* Includes Arizona, Utah and New Mexico

Hopis and Navajos battle in court

The 110-year-old standoff has forced thousands of Navajos and scores of Hopis from their traditional homes, while more than 800 Navajos continue to resist relocation from land awarded by Congress to the Hopis and face the possibility of forced eviction. Despite years of negotiations and a series of court suits and congressional acts, the land dispute remains unresolved.

Hopi and Navajo partition lands

An area covering nearly 2 million acres of what originally was set aside by an 1882 presidential order as a reservation for the Hopis was declared a “joint use area” by Congress and later was divided between the tribes, forcing the relocation of about 100 Hopis and 8,000 Navajos caught on the wrong side of the newly established boundaries.

Bennett freeze area

A disputed area of roughly 1.5 million acres around Tuba City on the western edge of the Navajo reservation where a 1966 order by then-BIA Commissioner Robert Bennett barred all construction, including improvements to individual homes. The freeze technically was lifted in 1992 when a judge awarded nearly all the land to the Navajos. But the ruling was appealed by the Hopis, leaving the freeze in effect pending a final ruling.

The Navajo Reservation is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, covering nearly 15 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It completely surrounds the 1.5 million acre Hopi reservation and Navajos outnumber Hopis by nearly 18-1.