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50 Years Ago: Hopi traditionalists often side with Diné

Many readers of the Navajo Times learned that there are actually two Hopi governments. Well, actually an official government and an official anti-government.

For decades, there was a group of traditionalists within the tribe who did not recognize the tribal council as the authority over life on the reservation. Instead, they believed in the old tradition of village chiefs.

Under their system of government, each village on the reservation had a chief who was in charge of life within that one village. There was no one chief over them. Each had his own domain and power.

Over the next 50 years, these traditionalists would side with the Navajo government in their various disputes but this probably did not come as a surprise as the traditionalists seemed to oppose anything the tribal council did.

Why the Navajo Times brought it up at this time was because of the recent agreement by the two tribes, which gave the Peabody Coal Company the right to mine for coal in the Black Mesa area. Since Black Mesa was located in the Joint-Use Area, both tribes had to agree to the mining.

Hopi traditionalists opposed the mining for the same reason grassroots Navajos opposed it – strip mining destroyed the land and polluted the air and they would later add destruction of the water table as well.

The one question that the Times tried to get answered was how many of the Hopi people believed as the traditionalists did? The Hopi Tribe had a membership at the time of about 5,000 members and those who would list themselves as traditionalists could have been as many as half the tribal membership.

But those who believed that the Hopi tribal government was illegal was probably less than 200 and may have been far less than that, according to future articles in the paper.

No one realized the role these traditionalists had in the image of the proud Hopi who wanted nothing more than to bring peace to the planet.

Within a few weeks of becoming chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council 1971, Peter MacDonald said he would be making contact with the group to join the Navajos in their land disputes with the Hopi government.

He used the traditionalists to show members of Congress that not all Hopis wanted Navajo families living in the land dispute area to be relocated.

Over the next two decades, these Hopi traditionalists gained a sort of sainthood, especially after “One Tin Soldier” was heard by young people in the soundtrack for the movie “Billy Jack.”

The Hopi traditionalists would become so popular in these circles that they brought their concerns to the United Nations where they joined other anti-government groups speaking for preservation of the land.

Speaking of the Hopi traditionalists, within a few months the Times would bring to readers’ attention another dispute that was going on between the two tribes – the issue of eaglets.

For years, the Hopis would come on Navajo lands to gather eaglets that would be used several months later in one of the Hopi’s most sacred ceremonies. The eaglets would be attached to poles outside a Hopi home for weeks until they were needed for the ceremonial.

What made this an issue with Navajos was that the eaglets were killed during the ceremony. Traditional Navajos who were brought up by their elders were told it was their duty to protect the eaglets and keep them from harm.

The chapters passed resolutions trying to stop the Hopis from coming onto their lands to gather the eaglets and to tell the Hops to gather the eaglets on their own lands.

So the Hopis for a while came onto Navajo lands in the dead of the night and Navajos would do what they could to keep the eaglets safe.

Eventually the matter would come to the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife who realized they had an enormous problem.

On one hand, the eagle under federal law was protected. On the other hand, another federal law protected the rights of Native Americans and if this meant protecting the rights of the Hopis to kill eaglets during the ceremonies, so be it.

Federal officials tried at first to get the Hopis to change the ceremony so that instead of killing the eaglets to do it symbolically and release the eagles unharmed. But Hopi ceremonial leaders said the ceremony required the killing of the eagle.

So for the past decades the federal department has protected the right of the Hopis to come onto Navajo lands to gather eaglets. But each year negotiations limit the Hopis on how many eaglets they can harvest.

The Navajos have argued for years that this practice will only result in eagles going elsewhere to nest and the Navajo Reservation will be as barren of eaglets as the Hopi Reservation.
As a result, the Fish and Wildlife Department has been seeking funding to do a population study to determine the eagle population on the Navajo Reservation.


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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