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Diné leaders react to dismissal of ‘Big Mountain 5’ case

March 8, 2002 by  
Filed under Voices from the Land

Jim Maniaci Diné Bureau
Gallup Independent

WINDOW ROCK – President Kelsey Begaye and Navajo Nation Council Speaker Ed T. Begay have issued brief reaction statements about the “Big Mountain 5.”

Hopi police arrested the five – Ruth Benally, Pauline Whitesinger, Louise Benally, Elvira Horseherder and Joella Ashkie – at Hopi Tribe headquarters in Kykotsmovi on July 11 on trespass charge in connection with a Lakota (Sioux) Sun Dance at Camp Anna Mae in Hopi Partitioned Land Range Unit 262.

On Monday, Hopi Tribal Court Chief Judge Gary LaRance ended a four-day jury trial by granting a defense motion for an acquittal verdict before the six jurors (one man, five women) could hear lead attorney Joe Washington present his case.

The judge said Deputy Prosecutor Geoff Tager did not prove all the elements of trespass as defined in Hopi Ordinance No. 21.

President Begaye issued his statement from Washington, D.C., where he was working on “Navajo Impact Week” with federal bureaucrats and legislators.

“It is a tribute to the integrity of the Hopi court system that, in a case that has received a lot of public and media attention, it viewed the case objectively, addressed the charges on their merits, and ruled in favor of the five Navajo defendants.

“This decision is encouraging for those Navajo families who live under Hopi jurisdiction on the Hopi Partitioned land. It is my hope and expectation that the Hopi court system will continue to view disputes involving Navajo families with objectivity and fairness.

“I wish to commend the defense attorneys who represented these five individuals. I would also like to thank the Navajo Nation Council, which supported Navajo Nation funding for the defense costs of the five Navajo defendants.

“It is important to build a strong relationship between the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe, built on mutual respect, the rule of law, and fundamental principles of fairness and compassion. This decision marks a  step in the right direction for this effort,” Begaye said.

Begaye and Hopi Chairman Wayne Taylor Jr. were meeting monthly until the incident, and in a recent interview with the Independent the DinÈ president said he would like to restart them.

Speaker Begay also applauded the court decision on religious grounds.

“I am thankful that these ladies will not have to live with the anguish and anxiety of being criminally prosecuted for seeking spirituality and solace on lands they have always lived on.

“Justice and protection of basic rights have been provided by Chief Judge LaRance’s decision,” the Navajo Legislative Branch leader concluded.

The defense tried to expand the case into a religious freedom versus tribal sovereignty issue, but the judge limited Washington and his co-counsel, Robert Malone of Washington, D.C., to the trespass charge.

Hopi leaders maintain that although the judge dismissed the charges, the women were still guilty of not obtaining a required activity permit signed by Taylor Jr. and were in a closed area. Both acts “are a clear violation of Hopi tribal law,” the chairman said in his statement.

During July and August, Hopi police arrested 10 people on trespass charges, but four were non-Indians and thus outside tribal court jurisdiction.

The lone remaining case is Louise Benally’s son Arrick Crittenden, whose jury trial will begin March 21 before Judge LaRance.

Crittenden’s charge came from an Aug. 20 dawn raid by Hopi crews, escorted by three police agencies, to dismantle the camp.

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