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50 Years Ago: Coverage of land dispute takes one-third of stories

If you were a reporter covering the Navajo Tribe, as I was in 1971, there were one issue that resulted in almost a third of the stories that you wrote in that year: The century-old land dispute between the Navajos and Hopis.

While there was a lot of discussions going on that year within both tribes, 1971 ended with Navajo leaders worried that the tense stalemate in the dispute could eventually lead to violence and possibly fatalities.

Chairman Peter MacDonald was trying to get congressional leaders as well as the BIA to give serious consideration to the possibility of actual warfare between the two tribes once Hopi officials began impounding Navajo sheep that wandered into Hopi lands from lands occupied by Navajo families.

MacDonald had talked to his counterpart on the Hopi Reservation, Clarence Hamilton, several times during 1971 trying to get the land dispute settled in such a way that Navajo families living in the disputed areas would be allowed to live on their ancestral homelands.

What the Navajos were hoping for was an agreement by the Hopis to allow the Navajos to. buy out the Hopi’s rights to the land. Members of the Navajo Tribal Council were hoping that whatever amount the Hopis wanted for the land would them be paid by the federal government since it had been federal officials who created the entire mess in the first place.

It began in 1883 when Congress decided to give the Hopis 1.6 million acres of land west of the Hopi Reservation. One of the questions I have tried to answer without success since then is why Congress made this decision.

At the time, the Hopi Tribe’s population was probably about 1,000 with almost all of the Hopis living on the mesas on their original reservation. Few raised sheep or cattle so no one seemed to care at the time, except for a few Hopi families, that the land was occupied by Navajo ranchers.

George Vlassis, general counsel for the Navajos in 1971, told me he didn’t think Congress meant for the land to go to the Hopis because the law read that the land would go to the Hopis and any Indians living on it. This seemed to infer that if the Hopis weren’t using it and the Navajos were, the land would belong to the Navajos.

That’s basically why the land was referred to as the Joint-Use area since it seemed that both tribes had some rights to the land. The question of who owned the land was in limbo until the Hopis filed the Healing vs. Jones lawsuit in the 1950s to get ownership of the land clarified.

So the blame for the mess shifts to the Navajo Tribal Council. Since the Navajo Tribe had sovereign immunity, it could have used that to get the lawsuit dismissed, but the Council, on the advice of its attorneys, agreed to accept the lawsuit because delegates were told that this would pave the way for the land to be officially turned over to the Navajo government.

I had been writing about the land dispute for several months and as 1971 ended, the number of stories weekly about the subject increased as the Hopis hired an Anglo cowboy to patrol the Hopi Reservation boundaries to impound any Navajo livestock that wandered onto Hopi land.

After the impounding started, I had a chance to talk to Clarence Hamilton, chairman of the Hopis, and I asked him if he thought that action would escalate the tension between the two tribes.

He pointed out that the two tribes had co-existed peacefully for more than a century – there had even been some intermarriage between members of the two tribes – so he expected the Navajo government to step in and agree to pay for the impoundment fees which the tribe did.

However, in the early days of the impoundment, payment for some livestock came too late and the animals were auctioned off, which led to some harsh words from the Navajo owners as well as chapter and Council officials from that area.

As the year ended, however, I kept hearing the rhetoric of Navajos living in the disputed area were becoming more volatile. When I brought this up with Samuel Pete, one of MacDonald’s top advisers, he suggested I make a trip to the Big Mountain area, the center of the harshest critics for the Hopi position.

I agreed and we decided that I would take photos of the area to show readers how the land dispute has affected Navajo families living in the Big Mountain area. So we met at his office early one morning and we left in a tribal vehicle for Big Mountain.

When we got there, I discovered that I had left my camera in my car – a rookie reporter mistake – but luckily the chapters had a lot of photos of the area so I was given a few of them to illustrate my story.

Back when the lawsuit was filed, the federal judge hearing the case, James Walsh, had ordered a complete halt of any new development on the affected areas until a final solution was reached.

That was some 16 years before my first visit and when I talked to Navajo families, I was made aware of the problems they faced as their families got bigger and they were forced to bring up their children in cramped quarters because they were not allowed to expand their homes as their families grew. This would result in families with as many as six children being forced to live in one-bedroom homes.

Some families made some renovations if it only pertained to the inside of the home but any type of new construction anywhere in the disputed area would be reported to Hopi officials and would trigger objections to Walsh.

I would write several stories based on that visit and would continue to make a journey every three or so years to the affected area and do updates.

By the time some 25 years later when a final settlement between the two tribes ended the dispute, I had probably written a couple of hundred stories about the subject, most of them for the Navajo Times.


About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.

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