Navajo Forced to Relocate
Interviews with those who refuse to leave
Fueled by a confluence of events shaped by the passage of Public Law 93-531 in 1974, the tragedy the Navajo face is complicated and devastating. Some supporters of the law argue that it seeks to settle an alleged century-old dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes regarding land use within an 1882 Executive Order Reservation President Chester A. Arthur created. Others emphasize that the law opens up the Navajo-Hopi Joint Use Area to massive strip mining, land swaps and development. All of the major players - the Navajo tribal government, the Hopi tribal government, the federal government, the coal companies, land developers, lawyers and bureaucrats - in one way or another benefit from the law. But by their support for, or lack of vigorous opposition to, the relocation all seem to agree that the relocation of 10,000 Navajo, who once lived independently, is an acceptable sacrifice.
In addition to dividing 1.8 million acres of land once held in common by both the Navajo and Hopi peoples in northeast Arizona, Public Law 93-531 requires the members of each tribe who live on lands apportioned to the other, to move by July 6, 1986. The law also requires the people, who depend upon their sheep in an essentially non-cash economy, to reduce their livestock. The law also imposes housing construction bans, barbed-wire partitions and other forms of harassment designed to compel the Indians to abandon their homelands without having to resort to military force.
More than 10,000 Navajos, more populous than the 6,500 Hopis who live primarily on the mesas above the rangeland, have been identified by the Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation Commission. Most of the 100 Hopi families who lived on the wrong side of the barbed-wire fence have already left. The Relocation Commission has removed about 3,000 Navajos so far and approximately 3,000-4,000 have left on their own, but most of the 2,000-3,000 who remain on the land say they will not move. For these people, who were never asked if they wanted to relocate, and who continue - and want to continue - to live in the traditional Navajo way, the forced relocation violates and disrupts their way of life. Moreover, those Navajo who have relocated, the most bi-cultural, have experienced a complete destruction of their life.
It is clear that Public Law 93-531 fashioned the direction of a momentum through which all of the major players benefit. The Hopi tribe recovers its land. The Navajo nation acquires valuable coal lands. Both tribes share in coal royalties in an otherwise depressed tribal economy. Peabody Coal Company can lease additional lands since title has been determined and expects the government to finance a coal road, "the Turquoise Trail," as part of the settlement. Large land developers in Arizona and New Mexico benefit from land swaps on parcels which they were previously unable to dislodge from the Bureau of Land Management, Non-Indian water users downstate applaud their elected officials who believe that a diminished Navajo nation will be less likely to influence the quantification of the cherished commodity of water in the arid southwest. The chairman of the Relocation Commission was promised by the law's architect, Senator Barry Goldwater, a chance at the governorship if he "got them out on time." The Salt Lake City law firm retained by the Hopi tribe looks forward to a second but similar lawsuit against the Navajo nation. And an entire cottage industry of bureaucrats has been created to manage a multimillion dollar task - probably in billions in its direct and indirect costs - that one relocation commissioner admitted is "impossible to carry out."
The commissioners who run the Relocation Commission concede that the July deadline cannot be met. The people who remain on the land fear that refugee-like camps may be constructed for them on the lands the Navajo tribe acquired from the Bureau of Land Management. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has assumed the relocation responsibility and according to Navajo tribal officials will move three model families during June. The entrenched Navajos who have established a "survival camp" in the Big Mountain area, with American Indian Movement support, speak ominously of a "last stand" and say that the elders remind them to prepare spiritually.
The unwavering position of the Hopi Tribal Council is quite distinct from the traditional Hopi Kikmongwis who support the Navajos in their view that what is at risk is nothing less than a way of life which traditional people choose. "They [the tribal council] want us to live like white people," says traditional spokesman Thomas Banyacya. Through its former chairman, Abbott Sekaquaptewa, the Hopi Council charted a strategy to recover all of its aboriginal lands - beginning with the 1882 Executive Order Reservation. Sekaquaptewa views the recovery of land from the Navajo as essential to the growth of future Hopi generations and says that the opposition of the traditional Hopis is more a conflict between "tradition" and "modernity" than it is support for Navajos. He dismisses the accusations of the traditional Hopi critics, who claim that the Hopi Council has been more guided by its Salt Lake City attorneys who once represented the coal company that seeks to expand its lease on the coal rich lands which are the subject of the controversy, as "misguided interpretation." "Coal," he said, "is necessary for our economic survival. Our interests just happen to converge."
The question of what aboriginal lands are available for the Hopi to recover provides a context to understand the dilemma. When asked whether he would litigate against non-Indian interests to recover land, the Hopi tribe's attorney of record replied, "I don't bring frivolous lawsuits."
While it is true that legislation is necessary to empower the tribe to recover federally, state or tribally held lands, it is quite unlikely that Congress will pass a law that would allow the Hopi tribe to recover public or other non-Indian lands. A 1980 amendment to the 1974 law suggests the anti-Indian bias that has undergirded the issue. Intensely lobbied by non-Indian interests who seem to prefer that the power of the Navajo nation be diminished, the amendment restricts the area in which Navajos are allowed to acquire "new" lands.
The question that remains unanswered is why the conditions were created to exacerbate tensions that may continue for an extremely long time between Navajos and Hopis. Was another solution conceivable? John Kennedy's predecessor, now-deceased John Boyden, authored a proviso in the 1974 act which authorized a second lawsuit by the Hopi tribe against the Navajo nation that places in question the title to two million acres of Navajo land and affects nearly 85,000 more Navajos. Traditional Navajos and Hopis ask whether Boyden, from his grave, has fueled a prolonged and tragic struggle between Navajos and Hopis for generations to come. They believe that the 1.8 million acres should be governed by a joint committee of traditional Navajos and Hopis rather than by the tribal governments.
Perhaps the human cost can best be understood by the grim stories of those who have relocated to off-reservation areas and lost their homes there. The Arizona Department of Real Estate, a Congressional inquiry and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have all examined the "questionable transactions" surrounding those increasing number of relocatees who have lost their homes. Several lawsuits have been filed against loan companies alleging abuse and outright fraud. The House Surveys and Investigation Committee recently released a report, known as the Yates Report, which concludes that the relocation is a failure and cannot be carried out in compliance with the law. But a Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing, which was "rescheduled" and later dropped, quashed public expression of the human costs of relocation.
According to a report submitted by the Big Mountain Legal Defense/Offense Committee in opposition to the Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation Commission FY 1986 budget request, the initial estimates of the total direct financial costs of the relocation were projected at $28 million. The current estimated costs exceed $500 million, but planners say that even at that price, relocation cannot be done.
Despite the decade-old legislation, the people who remain on the land have achieved heroic status, having endured much to live as traditional Navajos. According to a Bureau of Indian Affairs response to a Freedom of Information request, livestock has been reduced from 120,000 to less than 3,000 sheep, a moratorium on building and repair has left two generations without homes, families have broken up over the issue and a general lack of hope for the future permeates the atmosphere. What is probably most descriptive of the extraordinary cultural chasm is the elders' belief that through prayer, meditation and ceremony, the relocation program can be stopped.
While the drama is being played out at the highest levels of corporate and government circles, many of the people who continue to hold onto the land with a dignity and courage that speaks of the sense of a millennium of history prefer to speak for themselves so that the next generations will know what happened.
Alvin Clinton Yinishyé
Alvin Clinton, a singer who conducts flip most sacred of all Navajo ceremonies the Blessing Way, says that the most profound - and most Navajo - opposition to the public law is the Prayer Way. According to Clinton it is through prayer that Navajos know who they are as a people. For himself, Clinton said. "I know how to live as a Navajo and I know, too, how to die as a Navajo. I will not move.
I am Bitter Water clan (Tódích'iiní) from the Fingerpoint area. I am 62 years old.
When you were born, that little piece of cord comes off and it is tied. Then it is buried here. Every Navajo family that has kids, children, they have that umbilical cord and they keep it here and they bury it in the corral or here at the homesite and that is where it is kept. Their being is right here. Not in some other place. That is why the Navajo always comes back to where they live. This is one of the natural laws which we live by.
Their cord is buried at the corral, at the sheep corral, and from that time on this person will always think of that place where their umbilical cord has been buried. They will always think of where they were born and they will return. They always do, they always return.
There are a lot of other things like these places of prayer. The uprooting of the hogans is sacrilege to the Navajo. A hogan in the Navajo sense is always facing the east and every hogan that you see or a house that is built has always been built that way. This is our very sacred place that we have in the Navajo way.
When a person, a Navajo person, dies on the reservation and he dies in a hogan, he is buried [there]. That hogan is abandoned and the door sealed and you don't go [in] there any more. People who were living in that hogan move to another place not far off, staying within the vicinity. Now when a person relocates off the reservation, some individual, the Hopi tribe, goes in there and burns the hogan that the person was living in. That is a violation to the religious rights of the Navajo people.
There is a responsibility to stay on this land - this place, our Mother. We [have] worship[ped] these buttes here for a long time. We worship to the Cods. We have to continue to live here in these areas. The Navajos that are living in this area are rooted here. They will remain here. Their children will remain here and their grandsons, as we have been living in the past.
This butte right here is called Morning Butte. When the wind blows, you can hear it. Every time the wind blows, or the wind is going to blow, you will hear sounds from it. That is when you know that there is going to be a windstorm. On the very top, the highest part, there is a place where offerings are made. We put our offerings there. It has been handed down from generations. We still use that [place].
They would be violating our religious laws that have been handed down to us for generations from the Gods if they take us away from here. If a Navajo medicine man is relocated off the reservation, say to Flagstaff or Winslow, Holbrook, Gallup or even Phoenix, this is a violation of our religious laws. They would have to come back and worship here with a family that has not relocated. They have to pray from here.
On top of those buttes there are places where the older people have been praying. You can find rocks that are built there as an altar and you can see what the Navajos have been doing there. You see pieces of turquoise or jet or abalone or sea shell, white sea shells you will find there. That goes to show that the Navajos have been using this land for generations.
We are not relocating. Our very concern is about these prayers and also prayer meetings that we have. Right across the wash there is a hogan and we pray there together. This whole family here, we have done it many times. And the Native American Church is kept up too. They pray that this will all go away and cease and this is the way that I feel.
The Diné must live here. We are told that in ancient times, when this world came into being, that these Four Sacred mountains were put here for our protection, for Navajo protection and [this] still is [true]. We still believe [this], [it] is our religion. Besides the Sacred Mountains there are other gods that live there; there is also a Wind God that is guarding the buttes, all the way around the Four Sacred Mountains. These Holy People protect the Navajo nation and the Diné must continue to live in this area because it is our safety, our sanctuary. These buttes, these Four Sacred Mountains, they are our home. The two posts in the hogan that face the doorway to the east are just like the two minor Sacred Mountains that create this Big Hogan which we are living in. We are right in the heart of Navajo land - inside the Four Sacred Mountains. Dzil Ná is the two door posts of this big hogan which we are living in.
How will this religion of separation come back together is my point. How will we come back together? Our forefathers lived on this land before this land dispute ever occurred. They have been here and when they want[ed, they had] a squaw dance or a Yé'ii bicheii dance or a fire dance, or any of the big singings. They always came to the family members in their community. They helped each other with food and mutton and they used to do it in a friendly way. They respected each other and lived harmoniously here. But today the public law has separated us from the land and from each other. How are we going to fix that? You have to take certain steps. If I am pushed too far, I am sure that I will do it.
Katherine Smith Yinishyé
The resistance to file forced relocation was initiated by the women who are the foundation of the matriarchy at Big Mountain. The efforts of the elders inspired other people who live in the areas scheduled for relocation to develop their own strategies of opposition to the public law. Katherine Smith, a woman more comfortable with the power of prayer than of a gun was forced to use her "old gun" to voice her opposition to the fencing crew, who embody a policy that she says she has no part in making.
I am from Big Mountain and here we go by clan. I am Edge Water clan (Tá Baahí) and born for Apache clan (Chiishí). I am 65 years old.
Q: Your daughter said, "My mother has gotten real stubborn." What did she mean by that?
A: She relocated.
Q: Then she thinks that because you won't relocate you are stubborn?
Q: Do you figure that you are stubborn?
A: What does stubborn mean? We just look like prisoners. We just look like prisoners. They put the barbedwire fence all around us and I don't know how many thousands of us are in prison. The public law makes us prisoners.
They put up the fence way across the wash; almost two miles. I think that it was two miles and we went over there and I tried to ask the fencing crew what this fence was for. I wanted to know about it but the workers never talked to me. My second time I just took my old, old gun. I got that gun when I was 14 years old. It was a .22 rifle and I just took that and I washed my hair and I bathed myself and cleaned up and put my clothes on.
If they really want to kill me, it is okay with me because this land is from the Navajo and belongs to the Navajo - all our relatives. My family belongs to the land. The humans belong to the land and the land belongs to the people who live on it as caretakers. So I dressed up myself ready to be killed and I just took my old rifle and I walked. I took my sheep out and I just took off to the fencing all by myself. I was going to the men working. About 200 feet away, I shot [in the direction] at the workers [but] up in the air - not really to kill them. I just shot up in the air and everybody rushed up and just one policeman was there waiting for me. Then I walked up to the policeman and all the workers chased me away. Later, I was standing with the policeman that was guarding that fencing and another BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] policeman came and he just jumped on me and I just held my old gun tight and he tried to slam me around. The other policeman stopped him. He said, "What are you trying to do? Why don't you take her easier." He was a Navajo BIA and the other one, who was trying to jump on me, was a Sioux.
"I'm not going to get in the police car. You will take me outside of the reservation. I am not going to get in. And don't take me to the Navajo tribe jail and don't take me to the Hopi jail," I said to him. "Where are we going?" I asked. He said, "Some place in Denver." And then he took me to Chinle [in Arizona].
The land is being taken away because they [the government] have power in Washington. We were put here with our Four Sacred Mountains - and we were created to live here. We know the names of the mountains and we know the names of the other sacred places. That is our power. But the government threw their officials at us and they started barking at us like dogs.
The rich people are doing this; they never see us. They just look here and see just a raggy people - a raggy man or a raggy lady. But our Sacred-Spirit put us on these Six Sacred Mountains. And the Six Sacred Mountains are not outside us - they are inside. We call the Six Sacred Mountains the sacred hogan.
This is our hogan and in our land is Six Sacred Mountains all around us and in the middle is Big Mountain. We don't want to be [re]located [away] from these Six Sacred Mountains. We don't want anybody to take us away from these Six Sacred Mountains.
According to our old people, the ceremonial basket represents the earth and there are different things in the earth. There is gold, there is silver, there is coal and uranium and water - all that is explained in our ceremonial basket. It is explained to us that the ceremonial basket represents all the resources within the earth. In the center there is a spot left and that is where the Diné people have come out from the Third World to the Fourth World.
It is said that we are protected within natural creation by the Holy Breath, the wind, and we were put here with our livestock from the beginning. We were told to remain with our livestock that were given to us from the beginning. That is our way of life. This is how we live. This is how we pray and this prayer has never been changed. The song has never been changed. My important words are, "Don't bother us."
Guy Bahe Yinishyé
In the course of interviews conducted over a six-month period, Navajos who live in the former Joint Use area - land formerly governed by both the Navajo and Hopi tribal governments - described a consistent policy of harassment and invasion of privacy by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Relocation Commission and Hopi tribal police to make certain that the law's restrictions on construction and repair, and requirements to sell newborns at lambing and calving season, were being abided. As a result of the constant surveillance a sense of occupation permeated most peoples' consciousness. When I first met Guy Bahe, he was roping an empty oil can in the corral where he once kept his horses.
I am Towering House clan (Kin yáa'aaní) born for Red Running into the Water clan (Tá chii'nii). I am 46 years old and am from Star Mountain.
Pressure was put on us. Our livestock was impounded twice. First we just paid to recover them and the second time we had to give them up because we had no money. The livestock was considered trespassing by law [into the Hopi partitioned lands]. They were trespassing according to Whiteman's law. But in our ways the land is for everybody to use.
We had a permit and had brands on our horses. But they just came in the morning and took them. We went after the horses at Keams Canyon but had enough money to get only one back.
They come out in airplanes and watch to see if livestock is grazing on the wrong side of the fence. Then the panel [trucks] come onto the land to pick up the livestock. They used to come around flying up and down the wash in airplanes watching, and then call on the radio to Keams Canyon. Then the Keams Canyon police came out to get them. Now they come on our land with their trailers to take our horses and bring their police rangers with them.
For years this has happened. No one has helped us. We are forgotten, those of us who live in the JUA [Joint Use Area]. We are suffering from everything. The tribe doesn't fix our roads anymore. We can't collect our firewood in the usual places. Windmills are in disrepair. Is there no place for us anymore?
It is very hard to imagine leaving. It is like being at war. We don't even know if we are going to be living here in a month or a year. It is like that. I have not signed any kind of relocation papers and I don't intend to move. I am staying. They will have to tie me up and haul me out.
What I learned from the Whiteman is that the United States is supposed to be a free country. You can decide the laws. We live on an Indian reservation - not in the Whiteman's world. But the Whiteman now draws a map and puts us right in the middle of Hopi land. Hopis over here and Navajos over here. The Whiteman created two reservations and we are just caught right in the middle. Maybe freedom doesn't mean anything. I used to respect it [the United States] but I don't really care for it anymore.
If we must fight for this land, we will. I really will. In the Bible it says, "The last day there is going to be a war." It looks like the war has started right here in Navajo country. If that is the way that it will end - that is how it will end.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.