Navajos get some breathing space in dispute over land

PHOENIX (AP) — Navajo families living on Hopi land who failed to sign a 75-year lease by a midnight deadline won’t be evicted, as many Navajos feared, Hopi tribal officials said Monday.
Navajo families had until midnight Monday to sign leases acknowledging the rugged patch of desert in northern Arizona is Hopi, or lose their claim to the land that holds religious significance for them.
In New York, San Francisco and Flagstaff, Navajo resisters rallied Monday to protest the land-lease plan aimed at ending a century-old land dispute between the two tribes.
More than 100 protesters took to the streets of San Francisco, beating drums and chanting to call attention to the plight of the affected Navajo families. In New York, demonstrators urged the United Nations Ñ in vain Ñ for an independent investigation.
“These are subsistence people who have been denied basic human services,” said Marsha Monestersky, a Navajo spokeswoman.
Demonstrators at each rally said the plan violates Navajos’ religious freedom by requiring permits for certain ceremonies and forbidding them from burying their dead.
“I do think these graveyard sites of my ancestors are the roots holding me there,” said Roberta Blackgoat, a Navajo in Flagstaff who refused to sign a lease. “I can’t leave the sacred songs and sacred prayers of my ancestors.”
Navajos also contend that Hopi officials want them off their land so they can open it up to coal and mining interests — a charge Hopis deny.
The dispute began in 1882 when the federal government set aside 1.8 million acres for use by the Hopis and other Indians living on the disputed land, which was occupied almost entirely by Navajos who refused to move out. Hopis, however, says they were there long before the Navajo arrived.
As of Monday afternoon, more than 60 of the 80 affected Navajo homesites had signed leases, also called “accommodation agreements,” allowing them to stay on the land for 75 years, said Hopi tribal spokeswoman Kim Secakuku.
More families were expected to sign as the midnight deadline approached. Estimates of how many Navajos live on the Hopi reservation range from 300 to more than 1,000.
“If they don’t sign, they don’t have any legal rights or legal protections,” Secakuku said. “All we can say is we have tried to work with them. We have always been clear that (the accommodation agreement) will always allow them to practice their religion.”
Hopi officials sought to reassure those Navajo families who refuse to sign the leases that they won’t be evicted anytime soon.
The federal government must give them 90 days to decide whether they want to be relocated at the government’s expense. Then the government must build them a house, likely on the Navajo reservation. The process could take from six months to more than a year.
Also, federal officials will continue attempts to get them to agree to be relocated, Secakuku said.
Families who sign the lease have three years to live on Hopi land to see if they like it; if not, they can still ask to the relocated.