50 Years Ago: Tribe wins lawsuit over lands lost

The Navajo Tribe won a major court battle against the federal government for stealing lands that should belong to the tribe.

The Indian Claims Commission issued a decision that the tribe should have received a lot more land in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado when they were returned to their homelands in 1868. The commission said the federal government owes the tribe for 28 million acres of land the Navajos were deprived of when the boundaries of the reservation was established that year by Congress.

A lot of this land was in Colorado. The commission said the tribe was able to prove that tribal members had occupied millions of acres in the southwestern portion of the state. The tribe received no land in Colorado when the reservation lines were drawn up. The big question is how much should the federal government be required to pay the tribe for taking those lands from them.

Under federal law the tribe is to be compensated on the value of the land at the time it was taken, not what it is worth in 1970. The tribe also has no rights over the land even if it is unused. The commission has called for both tribal and federal attorneys to submit paperwork outlining what they think the land was worth in 1868.

The tribe will get nothing for the mineral rights. Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai said he thought the Navajos would claim the land was worth at least a dollar an acre. He said he expected the federal government would argue that the land was worth less than half that much. As for how much the tribe should receive if it was based on the current value, it would probably be more than a billion dollars since it included a lot of lands rich in oil and natural gas. It also included land that includes a number of cities, such as Gallup, Farmington, Winslow and Holbrook.

Nakai said the answer to that question won’t be coming soon. It will take months for the various experts on both sides to come up with a suggested amount and once that is done, the commission may take a year or more before issuing its decision.

As for the question of what to do with the money when it comes to the tribe, Nakai said the tribe should consider using a part of it to buy some of these lands back.

Navajo Community College, which opened in January 1969, is already facing its first major crisis.

There were reports in local papers that as many as 24 staff and faculty members have indicated that they will not be coming back for the fall semester. That comprises about half of the faculty.

One member of the faculty, whose identity was not revealed, told the Navajo Times and other papers that some faculty members feel they have been harassed by the Navajo staff who would like to see them leave so that they could be replaced by Navajos.

There also seems to be a split among the faculty members over the curriculum and how hard the faculty can make the classes.

The issue over harassment seems to involve the question of cultural identity or how much should Navajo culture play in the teaching of mainstream classes at the college.

The first community college ever started on a reservation, the early discussions centered around creating an education curriculum that would emphasize the culture of the tribe by integrating the Western ideals of education with an understanding of how this fits into Navajo culture. In other words, make sure your class also provides students with information about Navajo culture.

The problem with this is that most of the faculty at the college comes from outside the reservation and have little knowledge of Navajo culture.

As for the other issue, some teachers were criticized for not caring for their students and not taking into consideration the fact that most Navajos attended high schools that set very low standards for students to meet in order for them to graduate. This resulted in many of the students entering the college with a sixth-grade or lower ability in math and reading.

There was news this past week also of concerns expressed by parents of students attending Crownpoint High School. The concerns were brought up at a recent school board meeting. Several parents complained about the lack of funds in the school budget to pay for meals for school athletes on away games. As a result, the athletes were required to bring their own meals or have the coaching staff pay for it out of personal funds.

School officials said this was an oversight on the part of school officials who failed to take that under consideration in preparing this year’s budget, they said, adding that this had been taken care of for the next school year. For reasons that were not explained, students who produced the school’s annual this year were not allowed to seek ads to defray its cost.

As a result, students have to pay three times as much for this year’s annual. Parents said their children have told them that some of their teachers had problems instilling discipline in their classes. In one case, a student and teacher actually got in a fistfight in front of the class.

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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