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Navajos Face Eviction Proceedings

January 31, 2000

BIG MOUNTAIN, Ariz. (AP) _ The feud has festered for more than a century. Lawsuits were filed, agreements worked out, deadlines set and ignored. And still the battle rages between Hopi and Navajo Indians over a desolate piece of earth both consider their own.

Tuesday marks a turning point in the dispute: On paper, it is the day the government can begin eviction proceedings against about a dozen Navajo families who refuse to leave the land or sign a lease with the Hopis to allow them to stay.

To a Navajo elder considered a trespasser on the pastures she calls home, it is a day of dread. To a Hopi rancher harassed for grazing cattle on land that is legally his, it is a day of hope but also skepticism.

To their tribal leaders, it is a day that could finally mark the beginning of the end to a dispute that has divided a place and its people.

``We just want it to be over with,″ said Eugene Kaye, Hopi tribal spokesman. ``It’s time to move on.″

The dispute involves 1.8 million acres in the high desert of northeastern Arizona, a land of mystical magenta canyons and rustling juniper on gently sloping mesas.

Back in the 1800s, Congress began carving this territory into reservations. In 1882 the Hopis were granted 2.5 million acres next to land the Navajos had obtained years earlier. But when the Navajo tribe began growing, Congress expanded its territory, until it completely surrounded the Hopi reservation. Eventually, the Hopi were forced to share two-thirds of their land with the Navajos.

In 1974, Congress divided up the 1.8 million shared acres between the tribes, stranding members of each on the wrong side.

The 100 or so Hopis left on Navajo land quickly moved, as did 13,000 Navajos. Hundreds more refused to budge, saying they were tied to the land by heritage and religion.

In 1996 Congress ratified a settlement allowing the remaining Navajos to stay on Hopi land if they signed a 75-year lease granting them three-acre home sites and 10-acre farms. They also had to abide by Hopi laws.

To date, 320 people have signed. About 50 to 70 people continue to refuse.

Come Tuesday, they face eviction proceedings under the agreement, though officials stress no one will be removed from their homes that day. The U.S. attorney’s office is handling the eviction process, which _ with investigations and court proceedings _ could take up to two years.

May Shay, a Navajo elder who has spent nearly all her 74 years on Hopi land, regards the day with sadness.

Her traditional Navajo hogan on the Hopi reservation fell to pieces several years ago and is now only a pile of cinderblock and a stack of wood. The Hopis have refused to let her rebuild it. She has spent the last several years living with relatives on Navajo land.

``I want to come back here,″ Shay _ looking tired and wounded _ said as she stood in the spot where her home once was. ``Every day I think about it.″

Her grandson, 19-year-old Sean Benally, added: ``This is what they do to elders in America. When I grow up, I don’t want to suffer like my elders did. I’d rather rebel.″

On the other side of the dispute is 53-year-old Hopi rancher Clifford Balenquah.

In 1990, Balenquah obtained a grazing permit for a parcel of the disputed Hopi land and moved 14 cattle onto the property. Within months his boundary fence had been cut and four cattle were missing. He built a corral; it was dismantled. He erected a stone wall; it was demolished.

Then one afternoon, as his teen-age son looked on, Balenquah scuffled with some Navajos.

For Balenquah, Tuesday offers a glimmer of hope.

``It’s a day that we can look forward to and say, `Now we can have free usage without harassment.′ But we should have had that a long time ago,″ he said.

Pausing, he reconsidered: ``I know those people, and they are not going to move. They will be there come Feb. 3. They’re still going to be there, and they’re going to be kicking.″

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