Paiutes seek land, acknowledgement from Diné neighbors

By Krista Allen
Western Agency Bureau

TUBA CITY, Oct. 31, 2013

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(Times photo - Krista Allen)

TOP: San Juan Southern Paiute Vice President  Edith King, 66, from Paiute Mountain (Naatsis'áán to the Diné) sits in a dilapidated trailer that she calls her studio where she weaves baskets that the Diné refer to as Navajo wedding baskets.

BOTTOM: Jack Owl Sr. (center), a member of the San Juan Southern Paiute tribal council, poses with his family at his home on Paiute Mountain. Many of the San Juan Paiutes are quadrilingual, speaking English, fluent Navajo, Hopi, and Paiute. 

(Times video – Cindy Yurth)

VIDEO: Jack Owl of the San Juan Southern Paiute tribe shares a few words in the Paiute language, translated by his son, Lenny.

Northern Arizona is home to 10 tribes, each with its own rich culture, history, land base and language.

In fact, Arizona, occupied by 22 tribes, is the cradle of a greater diversity of American Indian cultures than anywhere else in the U.S.

For these tribes, land is power.

The Navajo Nation, second most populous of all North American Indian peoples, has the largest land-based reservation that stretches across the high deserts and forests of the Four Corners region.

The San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, on the other hand, is one of the smallest and has long been considered as part of the Navajo Nation. But their unique history has shaped their territories in ways that have made them particularly discrete from other Paiute bands.

The San Juan Paiutes are culturally distinct from their Diné and Kiis'áanii neighbors and their backstory as neighbors goes back more than a century, when relations were peaceful.

Neither the Diné nor the Hopi has ever attempted to alter the Báyóodzin's traditional ways, but the Diné have greatly affected this band's way of life.

After the U.S. signed a treaty (Naaltsoos Sání) with the Diné on June 1, 1868, the Navajo Nation managed to add to their land as the Hopi and Paiutes were steadily losing theirs.

Paiute territories south of the Colorado River were engulfed by the expanding Diné population.

Paiute lands north of the Arizona border and south of the San Juan River in Utah were proclaimed in 1907 as the Paiute Strip Reservation, which was placed under the jurisdiction of the Western Navajo Agency. Unfortunately for the Paiutes, in 1922, the Paiute Strip was integrated into Navajo lands.

May Preston, the tribe's president, said, "They (Navajos) need to start respecting us as their neighbors and as a tribe! I know we're small-scale but we're here! We exist! We're Paiutes! We know the language, and we know Navajo too!"

The San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe has 300 members and 100 children waiting to be enrolled. Most live in two settlement areas -- Paiute Mountain, (Navajo Mountain or Naatsis'áán to the Diné) and Tuba City -- while the rest live in Cow Springs, Hidden Springs, and White Mesa.

Several of the folks from Paiute Mountain (or Kaivyaxaru in Paiute) live east of the mountain where they have farms at the bottom of Paiute Canyon.

"The mountain is called Ina'íh bi dzil," said Edith King, 66, the tribe's vice-president. "(The Paiutes) were the only ones living there and that's why the Navajos call it 'Ina'íh bi dzil' meaning Enemy Mountain."

Culturally, the San Juan Paiutes have kept many of their traditions like fluently speaking the language.

"We've a diverse tribal council," said Preston, whose tribe is governed by a seven-person council called Shuupara'api.

Each of the councillors introduced themselves after an interview last month in a relatively compact room at Eagle's Nest Intermediate School where they have been convening for council since they were evicted from Greyhills High.

In 1980, the Shuupara'api decided to seek federal recognition so they sought the help of several professionals to assist in pleading their case.

The Navajo Nation, overtly, opposed recognition of the Paiutes, whose land the Navajo tribe had won in a land claim case. In that case, Diné lawyers argued that this country had been inhabited by "Indians" since time immemorial. The lawyers then argued that the San Juan Paiutes were actually Diné and that they should not be given independent status since acknowledgement would give them a basis to get their lands back.

Approximately 70 percent of the tribe were enrolled as members of the Navajo tribe. The Navajo Nation used those census figures to formulate its own tribal rolls, labeling the San Juan Paiutes as Navajos.

"It was against their will," said Preston.

Nevertheless, she says a small number of her tribal members registered with other Paiute tribes up north while another handful remained "no census."

On the other hand, she says the enrollment was a good thing.

"You had to be Navajo to get (amenities)," continued Preston. "Our people needed (resources because) we didn't have federal recognition. There was a language, there were traditions, there was a history, and (we) were just overlooked. We, unknowingly, went under Navajo Nation."

The San Juan Paiutes finally received federal recognition on Dec. 11, 1989 as an independent band but the decision wasn't upheld until 1990.

Their recognition gave them a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. as well as the responsibilities, powers, limitations and obligations that came with being a recognized tribe. Many of the tribal members also moved to Tuba City where their tribal offices have been temporarily located for more than a decade.

"Recognition was granted to us based on (our) language," said Preston. "We have evolved like any other new organization and we've gone through some hardships."

She says her tribe is in the process of regaining integrity since the tribe's former president, Evelyn James, was sentenced in 2009 to 24 months in federal prison and fined $75,000 for making false statements, theft from a tribal government receiving federal funds, and money laundering. In pleading guilty, James admitted that she stole nearly $300,000 in tribal funds.

Preston's tribe is gradually healing.

"All these negative things has helped us develop into a new organization," said Preston. "This is a new council. We're here to serve Paiutes and we mean business."

More than a decade ago in Hidden Springs just north of here, then-Diné President Kelsey Begaye signed a treaty with then-San Juan Paiute President Johnny M. Lehi Sr. that allowed the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe approximately 5,400 acres of land.

"It was a beautiful celebration," Preston recalled. "One of the Navajo delegates said, 'We should respect one another and live together in harmony.'"

King says her tribe isn't reinforced by the Navajo Nation like it should be.

"It's not happening, it's just getting worse," said King.

"We need Paiute land. Navajo Nation needs to give Paiute some original homeland," said Preston. "It's so hard to demand respect," she said. "People say (one) should earn it, but the respect for other tribes is overdue! We opened our lands, our homes, our farming areas, our livestock areas for the Navajos to hide in from the rampage of Kit Carson and prison life. We spare them that misery! We spare them being held hostage!

"Yet that's forgotten and now we're begging for some of the things that belonged to us, to be returned to us," she added. "The respect's long overdue! This is 2013! We fight against our nationalities about respect, fairness, discrimination and equality but we don't have it right here on our own backyard. Even today, we have discrimination!"

Preston says many of her tribal members that live in Paiute Mountain aren't eligible to receive health care at the clinic where the locals go for consultation.

The Shuupara'api met with President Ben Shelly and Vice President Rex Lee Jim last month in a meeting to discuss "serious" problems with their neighbors in Paiute Mountain where they aren't given homes and amenities like running water.

"They're building homes, roads, and putting poles over our burial sites of our ancestors," said Preston. "They're dismantling these sites and destroying evidence of our existence. It's just an encroachment!"

Because there are almost no wage-paying jobs available to them, many of the tribal members make tight-woven baskets that the Diné refer to as the "Navajo Wedding Basket."

"Those were traditionally made by Paiutes," said Preston. "Navajos wanted to get Paiute spirit since history illustrates that Paiutes raised the dead.

"I'd like the Navajos to release some of our original homelands to the Paiute so that we can bring housing, jobs, and economy so our sovereign nation can grow," added Preston. "We could have life and we wouldn't have to look to the Navajos for service. We'll be self-sufficient and self-governing. We can make it a reality: the dreams of our elders."

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