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Hopis, Navajo trade threats of range war

It was obvious to those covering the century-old land dispute between the Hopis and Navajos that the Hopi government was tired of waiting for Congress to come up with a solution to the dispute and decided to take steps to force Congress to take action.

Ever since late April, non-Indian rangers hired by the tribe to patrol its boundaries were becoming more aggressive dealing with Navajo livestock that wandered off Navajo lands to land owned by the Hopis.

As I wrote in my stories during that time, the Hopis were doing everything they could to create a range war between the tribes in that area and the threat of violence seemed to be getting closer and closer.

The Hopis, in the hopes of creating more chaos, had started arresting Navajo livestock owners who continued to allow their livestock to wander onto the Hopi Reservation to feed. The arrests were being made by the non-Indian rangers so there were no clashes between members of the two tribes.

But Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald was telling reporters that it was only a matter of time before Navajo ranchers began arming themselves and confronting anyone who tried to impound their livestock. Both tribes were putting out press releases weekly warning federal officials that if something wasn’t done soon to calm down Navajo ranchers, someone would get hurt.

Both the Navajo Times and the Gallup Independent were heavily editing press releases to take out some of the volatile language. But both the Arizona Republic and the Associated Press were playing up the threats of violence, which both Navajo and Hopi leaders were happy to see.

Both tribes wanted the federal government to come up with a solution. The Hopis wanted federal help to force Navajo families off disputed land and the Navajos were doing everything in their power to get Congress to pass laws allowing the Navajo families to stay in their ancestral homes.

There were reports that the livestock impoundment was increasing since early 1972. In February, the Navajos were reporting less than 200 impoundments for the month but by April it had almost doubled.

While the impoundment was bad enough, Navajos were accusing the Hopis of selling off some of the livestock to off-reservation ranchers before Navajo owners even knew they had been impounded.

The Times was urging the federal government to put up a fence around the Hopi Reservation to keep the Navajo livestock on Navajo lands, which would solve the impoundment problem. Whether it was due to these news articles, the BIA decided a couple of years later to fund a fencing program.

If the Times thought this would solve the problem, the paper was wrong. Almost as soon as a stretch of the fence was put up, it was torn down. Hopis blamed Navajo ranchers and the Navajos blamed Hopis who were opposed to the fence because it looked as if the federal government was imprisoning the Hopis.

Other dispute

It was about this time that I became aware of the other dispute between the two tribes, a dispute that lingers to this day.

I was attending a meeting of the Council’s Health Committee when they took a break and a member of the committee, who was from the western portion of the reservation, sat down beside me and asked what I was doing there since I had never covered a Health Committee meeting before.

I explained that nothing was going on and I was looking for a story and was desperate enough to hope that the Health Committee would provide something newsworthy.

He then took a few minutes to tell me about the dispute between the two tribes concerning eaglets.

This had apparently been going on for some time as I was told that the former chairman, Raymond Nakai, had met with federal game and wildlife officials on the problem during his administration.

The center of the dispute revolved around the Hopis coming on Navajo land in the western part of the reservation to capture eaglets which they used in their traditional ceremonies in the spring.

The ceremonies go back centuries as there is historic evidence that Hopis would climb up to nests located on their reservation and take eaglets that would be used in the ceremony.

Apparently, the eagles caught on to what the Hopis were doing because early in the last century eagles began avoiding Hopi lands, forcing Hopi gatherers to travel onto the Navajo lands to find eaglets they needed.

The problem between the two tribes arose because an eaglet that was captured was killed at the end of the ceremony while traditionally Navajos were taught to respect eagles and protect them from harm.

Nakai had asked for federal help to stop the Hopis from gathering the eaglets on Navajo lands. He suggested that the Hopis be allowed to go on federal lands to gather the eaglets they needed but Hopi traditionalists said it was important that they hunt at traditional sites.

Over the years, I wrote about this every spring, talking to councilmen and tribal fish and wildlife officials who were still taking to federal officials trying to come up with a solution that would protect the eaglets on the Navajo land.

I was told that some chapters made efforts in the spring to protect the eaglets and keep them from Hopis. Navajo tribal officials tried to get the Hopis to change the ceremony to allow the eaglets to live, but Hopi traditionalists said for the ceremony to work, the eaglets had to die.

Back in the 1980s, tribal fish and wildlife officials were reporting a decrease in the number of eagles setting up nests on the Navajo Reservation, saying that if the federal government did not do something the rez would no longer have an eagles nesting there.

All of this caused federal wildlife officials problems because they, too, wanted to protect the eaglets but federal laws upheld the right of the Hopis to go to traditional sites to gather eaglets, even if it was on the Navajo Reservation.

Then about 20 years ago, the federal government instituted rules that spelled out where the Hopis could go to collect eaglets and, for the first time, set a limit on how many eaglets the Hopis would be allowed to collect 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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