A decades-long dispute between the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation over land that was originally Hopi but was given to the Navajo has once again become an issue since a government map was leaked showing Forest Service land as designated to the Hopi Tribe.
On Monday March 12, members of both tribal governments met at Flagstaff City Hall for a special meeting with Flagstaff City Council, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, representatives for Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Arizona, and nearly 200 Flagstaff residents to discuss the land dispute. The issue becomes more complicated with the fact that many Navajo families now reside on land that the Hopi Tribe once had claimed.
Before the Navajo Nation Peace Treaty of 1868, Hopi lands extended over most of northern Arizona and even into parts of Utah and New Mexico. The treaty gave most of the Hopi land to the Navajo and since then there have been 15 more treaties and acts enacted by the federal government have repeatedly .
The federal government has attempted to settle this dispute in the past, most recently in 1996 when Public Law 104-301 was passed. Called the “Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute Settlement Act of 1996” lawmakers sought to return land to the Hopi Tribe while also respecting and taking care of the Navajo people living on the land.
“This act, together with the Settlement Agreement executed on Dec. 14, 1995, and the Accommodation Agreement (as incorporated by the Settlement Agreement), provide the authority for the Tribe to enter agreements with eligible Navajo families for those families to remain residents of the Hopi Partitioned Lands for a period of 75 years, subject to the terms and conditions of the Accommodation Agreement,” read an excerpt from the 1996 settlement act.
A 5-mile radius was established for the land surrounding Flagstaff to leave the city room to grow as well as language preventing federal land from being given to the Hopi. And condemnation, also known as eminent domain, was authorized to purchase land from the state for the Hopi.
Despite this attempt, which McCain helped write, 22 years later the land dispute remains unsettled. Only with the looming shutdown of the Navajo Generating System (NGS) and the loss of the coal mines that supply it, those in the Hopi Tribe now need their land more than ever so they still have means to support themselves economically.
This was only part of the Hopi’s plea at city hall Monday night. Chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council Timothy L. Nuvangyaoma laid out the three main points he wanted the legislators and the people of Flagstaff to know about their efforts to get their land back.
“The Hopi Tribe is not trying some kind of land-grab for forest service lands. The Hopi Tribe has a profound respect for the sacred landscape and the lands that surround Flagstaff,” said Nuvangyaoma. “All we want is for the federal government and state to live up to the promises they made to our people.”
He stressed the economic situation the Hopi are currently in, adding that not only do many Hopi people stand to lose their jobs when NGS closes, but that the Hopi Tribe itself is landlocked by the Navajo Nation.
The actual list of lands that the Hopi want is small, with the areas of Hart Prairie, Dry Lake Hills, Clear Creek and Aja Ranch being the only land parcels named by Nuyangyaoma as lands the Hopi want to reclaim. He stressed that these lands were a far cry from the original 500,000 acres promised in the attempted 1996 settlement act.
“The law promised that the Hopi could acquire 500,000 acres of land outside of our reservation to replace the lands that we lost. As part of the settlement act we dropped our claims against the United States,” Nuvangyaoma said. “The United States, the State of Arizona and the Navajo Nation all benefited when the tribe dropped our lawsuit. But the government has never lived up to its promises in the settlement.”
Perry Riggs, deputy director for the Navajo Nation Washington, D.C., office, spoke on behalf of the Navajo Nation and again stressed the economic situation that both the Hopi and Navajo are facing, and maintained that it is important that the Navajo Nation be involved in the process.
Arizona Land Department Commissioner Lisa Atkins was present to help clear the air about the recently leaked map. She repeated multiple times that the map was a working draft and not meant to be released, and that true to the 1996 settlement act, all federal land was off the table. However, the state government itself seems unprepared to handle the issue at this time.
Many governing bodies need to come together to work this land settlement out, including both the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe. When Vice Mayor Jamie Whelan asked Atkins whether the Hopi and Navajo would be at the table for the talks she gave an unsure answer.
“I don’t know, of course. But in the end, my job is making sure the trust is appropriately compensated for the lands in the trust that are used to resolve the Hopi situation,” Atkins said.
Despite the Hopi currently asking for only a handful of parcels of land, Atkins said that the state aims to give the tribe at least 140,000 to 150,000 acres of land. However, she said the legislators are currently awaiting a written response from the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation before proceeding with working out the details of any future land settlement.
Atkins explained the main issue that has kept the Hopi from receiving the land is though the state has designated land to be given, the federal government has yet to do the same with the land it holds in Arizona.
She said that McCain’s office was waiting on a written response from the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation’s as to what further actions they want the government to take in order to finally resolve this issue. Despite questioning from city council members, members of the county board of supervisors and citizens, no clear answer was given as to why the federal government has not designated land to be given yet.
What lands the Hopi Tribe will receive, if any, is still unclear. With the NGS slated to close in 2019, the Hopi Tribe is still waiting on the government to fulfill the promises made to them in 1996.