Arizona congresswoman seeks to spur growth on former Bennett Freeze land

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) September 2010

An Arizona congresswoman has proposed setting up a trust fund to help tribal communities rebuild after decades of not being able to make even minor repairs to their homes because of a land dispute.

A draft of the legislation released by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s office calls for setting aside a percentage of federal appropriations for the next 14 years. It would amount to $56 million a year based on the president’s proposed fiscal year 2011 budget, according to her office.

Former U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett imposed the ban on improvements in 1966 to settle a dispute over land that both the Navajos and Hopis claimed as their own. The freeze originally covered 1.5 million acres of Navajo and Hopi land but was reduced to 700,000 acres on the western side of the Navajo Nation.

Residents couldn’t fix a broken window or leaky roof, or bring electricity to their homes without approval from the neighboring tribe. Residents used flour sacks as window coverings, put tires on their roofs to keep them from blowing away, lit their homes with kerosene lamps and still haul water from distant wells.

Congress lifted what was known as the Bennett Freeze last year, but no significant funding has gone toward rehabilitation.

More than three-fourths of the homes in the affected Navajo communities aren’t suitable to live in, and more than half of the homes don’t have electricity, according to a study funded by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Obtaining funding has been difficult in the past few years because of the economy and politics, said Roman Bitsuie, executive director of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission.

“To see something of this magnitude, it’s something that Congress is willing to recognize that it was a mistake and there should be some redress,” he said.

Kirkpatrick, a Democrat, is accepting comments on the proposal until Wednesday and said she looks forward to helping the tribes “right these wrongs and restore hope in their communities.”

Navajo officials estimate that repairing homes, building new ones, upgrading waterlines, and constructing health and public safety facilities will cost between $1 billion and $4.5 billion.

Dorothy Lee, who works in an area affected by the Bennett Freeze, said Kirkpatrick’s efforts are long overdue. Lee was hopeful funding could be secured.

“We’re just going to have to wait and see,” she said Thursday. “There’s been a lot of empty promises, too.”

The draft legislation came as a disappointment to James W. Zion, who represents clients in the area. It proposes setting aside a percentage of appropriations to the BIA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to benefit Navajos and Hopis.

He said the funding sources “are not likely,” and the proposal fails to explain what has become of other money intended to benefit the tribes. He said the proposal could be improved through congressional hearings.

The draft legislation would give oversight of the trust fund to the Flagstaff-based Office of Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation, which has carried out one of the largest relocation efforts in U.S. history of Navajos from Hopi land and vice versa. The proposal would allow the office to contract with the tribes for improvements.

“Our agency was looked upon as the evil empire,” said Larry Ruzow, an attorney for the relocation office. “Here we are in 2010 and the Navajo Nation is looking toward our agency to play a major role in rehabilitating a very significant part of Navajo country is gratifying.”

The Forgotten People, a group that includes residents who were tangled up in the land dispute, said it doesn’t trust the relocation office to oversee the development. It suggested a multi-agency task force carry out development plans, and the federal government oversee the trust fund.

Kirkpatrick’s proposal also seeks to address the relocation of tribal members – an issue not directly died to the construction ban.

Navajos who lived on what was determined to be Hopi land had until 1997 to sign agreements with the Hopi Tribe to stay. About 300 agreements were signed, with a three-year window for people to change their minds and get relocation benefits instead, said Clayton Honyumptewa, director of the Office of Hopi Lands Administration.

Kirkpatrick’s proposal would extend the time for about 187 Navajos with accommodation agreements to relinquish them and receive benefits that include housing and counseling, Honyumptewa said. The proposal also would authorize the Navajo Nation to sign agreements with the Hopi Tribe for Navajos still living on Hopi land but who do not have accommodation agreements, Bitsuie said.