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50 Years Ago: Proposed solution to Navajo-Hopi dispute goes nowhere

Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai would later admit that what he did 50 years ago this week was a long shot, but he really thought he had a chance to finally resolve, once and for all time, the long-standing land dispute between the Navajos and the Hopis.

This had been a lingering problem throughout his seven years in office, although it had never risen up to a serious level.

A federal court judge ruled in 1962 that the federal government had never given Navajos permission to move onto the 1.8 million acres of land given to the Hopis by President Chester A. Arthur in 1888. But by 1970, some 10,000 Navajos were living on the land and the Hopis wanted them to be relocated.

Since that decision, the two tribes had been negotiating for a solution that would be acceptable to each tribe but these talks and various legal actions had gone nowhere. The Navajo families remained on the land and were getting more and more worried that someday they would be forced to move.

Nakai had pledged in both of his campaigns for chairman that he would find a solution that would allow the Navajo families to stay on the land but as he approached his third campaign, he realized that he had to do something to appease his supporters so he talked it over with some members of the Navajo Tribal Council and came up with this plan.

Fifty years ago this week, a group of five members of the tribal council hand-carried a proposal to Washington, D.C. that, if approved by Congress, would have the federal government pay the Hopis for title to their lands.

There were a couple of options as to what would happen to the land. The first called for it to go to the Navajos but there was a second idea that Navajo leaders thought would be more acceptable to the Hopis.

In this proposal, the land would not belong to the Navajos but would be held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of the Navajos and the few Hopis who has made their homes on it. It would have its own government that would report to the BIA and not the Navajo Tribal Council.

There was no mention of how much the Hopis were to get since this would be a matter that would be negotiated with the federal government, which would be responsible for paying for the settlement.

Nakai said he felt this was fair since it was the federal government that allowed the Navajos to move onto the lands in the first place. Privately, Nakai was expecting that the Hopis would receive about $10 an acre or about $18 million.

The proposal appears to have gone nowhere but the idea of paying off the Hopis for their ownership of the land would come up again more than once when it came time for the next chairman, Peter MacDonald, to find a solution to the dispute.

On another subject, the letters to the editor section of the Navajo Times was by far the most read section of the paper by 1970 and some letters seemed to really pique the interest of readers.

One such letter was written by “Little Flower” who said she grew up on the Navajo Reservation but then moved as a young adult to New York City. Over the next two months, the paper would print more than a dozen letters from readers who responded to her message.

“I am a Navajo and love the ways of my people,” she wrote. “I never realized how much it meant to me until I went to live in an Anglo city.”

Yes, she said, the city has a lot of luxuries that are not available on a reservation but the city life is not what it seems even to the Anglos. After all, the hippy movement consisted of kids who were raised in the city and were now looking for a different type of life — the kind that she had growing up.

“I am going home again soon, for good,” she said. “When friends and relatives ask me what I have learned, I am going to give them one piece of advice. Hold on to your culture, language and religion because, when it is all said and done, these are more valuable than anything the Anglo world can bring.”

She then quoted Larry Corlica who once said, “You can have all the cars, money and houses you want, but what good are they if your heart is empty?”

In a rare response, Dick Hardwick, the Times editor, wrote that it doesn’t take long for anyone who lives in New York City to become disillusioned with the Anglo world.

The letter doesn’t give a lot of details about Little Flower’s life on the reservation but she spends several paragraphs in opposition to the government forcing Navajo children to go to boarding schools so she may have been subjected to that type of life growing up.

“They take our children away at the age of six,” she wrote. “The Anglos would not like it if they had to send their children away like that.”

All of the writers who responded agreed with her assessment of life in the Anglo world, saying that it only corrupts and doesn’t satisfy.

One respondent, also a Navajo, said he had visited many cities as part of his job and talked to many Indians who grew up in the city and the one thing they had in common was a feeling that they missed out on not being raised on their 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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