Funds available for Freeze families, panel says

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Nov. 10, 2011

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The Navajo-Hopi Land Commission reports that it has nearly $4 million available to start helping Navajo families in the former Bennett Freeze area.

"This is the latest funding for the recovery of the area," the NHLC office stated in a recent report to the Navajo Nation Council. The money is from an escrow account.

For 30 years, 1966 to 1996, Navajo families in the Bennett Freeze area were prohibited from making improvements to their homes because of federal restrictions put in place at the behest of the Hopi Tribe, which claimed prior rights to the land.

Meanwhile, land-use payments were held in escrow. In 2010, following a federal settlement lifting the Freeze, some $6.3 million was released to the Navajo Nation to benefit Navajos still residing there.

The land commission hasn't yet approved the allocation of these funds, prompting the emergence of The Forgotten People, a grassroots group formed to demand an accounting of money spent and to push for needed improvements to the area.

The report to the Council said some $3.9 million of that $6 million has now been allocated to improve or replace dilapidated homes.

The commission also reported that lease fees from the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, which is building the Twin Arrows Resort Casino on land acquired under the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute agreement, are beginning to roll in.

Commission officials said the land had been purchased for about $7 million with the commission and the casino paying half of the cost. The land was then taken into ownership by the commission and the casino agreed to make annual payments to the commission for use of the land.

The first payment of $375,000 was made in June, said Raymond Maxx, director of the NHLC office.

In both cases, what's hanging up the actual disbursal of money is the lack of an approved spending plan. The commission is still mulling how to determine which families will receive grants when the number of potential recipients far exceeds the money available.

Maxx said a plan is being devised that will remove the allocation of funds from potential political influence and instead use criteria that will be fair to everyone.

The plan that is finally approved is expected to rely on a number of sources, including the BIA and commission data.

"We want to draw up a policy that will identify those who are in the greatest need," Maxx said, adding that whatever procedure is finally drawn up will "have to be blessed by the land commission."

Asked if there will be a cap on how much any one family can receive, Maxx said that has not been determined.

He also said he doesn't want families to start sending in grant applications yet because "it's too early," but hopefully the system will be in place by early 2012.

In related news, Navajo families who live in the Navajo-Hopi land dispute area will likely see a share of the tribe's gaming money sooner than will other tribal members.

The source will be fees paid to the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission by Twin Arrows Casino Resort, which made its first payment to the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission in June.

The commission and its administrative staff have been meeting to determine how best to use that money to benefit families affected by the dispute, Maxx said.

"We held a number of public hearings and the families said they wanted the money to be used for renovation of homes," he said, adding that this should come as no surprise to anyone who has visited the land dispute areas, where home improvements were all but impossible due to restrictions placed on Navajo families who refused to leave.

The Twin Arrows money would have started coming earlier, Maxx said, but the NHLC office agreed to allow a year's deferral because of delays in getting the project underway as the tribe debated a smoking ban for casinos.

Both existing casinos are outperforming expectations but profits are being plowed back into the tribe's gaming expansion plan, delaying use of gaming profits for other tribal needs at least for the next few years.

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