Obama signs Bennett Freeze repeal

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, May 14, 2009

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The Bennett Freeze is now history.

On May 8, President Barack Obama signed a law repealing the Bennett Freeze, thus setting the stage for the Navajos to begin seeking federal funding to rehabilitate an area larger than the state of Delaware that has had no significant development for four decades.

Obama released no statement in signing the bill but Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., who sponsored the bill in the House, said it was about time that the federal government start addressing the problems caused by the freeze, which prevented Navajos on roughly 1.5 million acres around Tuba City from developing their communities or, in many cases, from even keeping their houses in repair.

The freeze was imposed after the Hopi Tribe filed suit in 1966 to add that land to the 1.8 million acres that was part of the original Navajo-Hopi land dispute.

Then BIA director Robert Bennett issued an order suspending development on the land pending a decision in the court case, effectively preventing the 8,000 Navajos living in the area from building new homes, improving roads and infrastructure, or making improvements on their existing homes.

Over the next 40 years, life stood still under the Bennett Freeze area as Navajo families watched as other areas of the reservation receive improvements such as electricity and running water.

By 1990, stories began appearing in papers around the country of the hardships that Navajo families were facing as the Hopi lawsuit moved slowly through the court system.

Tribal studies during that time reported that young adults were leaving the area in droves because there were no jobs.

By 2000, the two tribes, under direction of the federal district court, were in talks to settle the dispute and over the next few years, these talks resulted in removing portions of the area from the freeze.

The Hopis got control of some lands, including Moencopi Village near Tuba City, and eventually, in 2006, the court approved a settlement that returned most of the 1.5 million acres to the Navajos.

The settlement was hailed as a milestone, but technically the freeze remained on the books pending action by Congress, explained Roman Bitsuie, director of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission.

The court settlement may have settled the legal aspects but Congress needed to pass a law that officially ended the freeze so that federal funds would be forthcoming to make up for all of the years of deprivation, he said.

"With the Bennett Freeze law off of the books, the Arizona delegation can now focus on working with tribal leaders and local communities to help our people help themselves," Kirkpatrick said.

"We're going to work to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, improve our schools and provide health care for everyone on tribal lands, so that people in greater Arizona have the same opportunities as everyone else," she added.

But everyone admits that this will cost tens of billions of dollars and take years, if not decades, to correct.

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