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Navajo relocation mired in human suffering and costs

June 26, 2006 by  
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by: Brenda Norrell, Indian Country Today 06.29.06

WASHINGTON – While leaders of the Senate Committee on
Indian Affairs pressed for an end to costs of the so-called Navajo and Hopi
land dispute, the director of the Navajo Nation’s office of relocation put a
human face on the suffering during testimony before the committee.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs,
pressed for an end to Navajo and Hopi relocation costs, which grew from an expected
$40 million at its onset 30 years ago to the current $480 million.

However, Roman Bitsuie, Navajo and executive director of the Navajo-Hopi
Land Commission Office, put a human face on the suffering of relocation and
compared the cost to what the United States spends in Iraq.

”As a matter of comparison, I would like to note that the entire cost to
the federal government over the last 36 years of the Navajo-Hopi land dispute
is roughly equal to what the United States spends in Iraq every 36 hours.”

Bitsuie pointed out that the thousands of Navajos who have been relocated
from their homes have suffered in desperation and the costs cannot be placed as
a dollar amount for being removed from their homeland, which Navajos
consider their Mother and life force.

”Relocated families have been traumatized and suffer from a much higher
incidence of alcoholism, poverty, suicide, depression and physical illnesses
than the rest of the local population,” Bitsuie told the committee.

Bitsuie was among tribal officials who gave oral testimony July 21 on the
Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Amendments of 2005. Bitsuie said the introduction
of Senate Bill 1003 provides an important and timely opportunity to address
the status of the Navajo-Hopi land dispute and the Bennett Freeze, where all
development has been stalled for decades.

”It also provides an important opportunity to focus attention on the need
for developing a plan for the orderly and humane completion of the relocation
law, including implementation of a rehabilitation program for affected areas
and communities.”

Bitsuie is from Hardrock Chapter, which was divided in half when the 1882
executive order area was partitioned into the Hopi Partitioned Lands and the
Navajo Partitioned Lands.

Bitsuie, executive director of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission Office since
1989, heads the Navajo entity responsible for dealing with Navajo and Hopi
land-related matters. He said he hears of the hardships every day.

Although all parties might not agree on all matters, Bitsuie said everyone
could agree on one thing: ”Relocation has been a fiasco.”

”At a cost of nearly $500 million, the federal government has destroyed the
subsistence lifestyle of thousands of Navajos, uprooted whole communities,
and left the Navajo Nation and Navajo people to bear much of the burden of
addressing the extraordinary economic, social and psychological consequences of
relocation.”

Bitsuie said Congress never understood the situation of the people living on
the land, and did not foresee the costs or the heartbreak.

Now, he said, a comprehensive study must be undertaken to assess the impact
of the relocation law and to serve as a policy- and fact-based tool for
developing a humane closure plan.

Bitsuie said relocation has not just been costly for the United States, but
it has been costly for the Navajo Nation in dollars, time and human
suffering.

The lawsuits authorized by the relocation law created unexpected liabilities
for the Navajo Nation, which has already paid the Hopi Tribe approximately
$40 million to settle several cases, he said.

When relocation laws were initially created, it was presumed that the
authorized amount of $60 million in the relocation trust fund would provide a
significant start to cover costs when invested. However, the trust fund was
supposed to be supplemented by the development of the Paragon Ranch energy
resources, which never became a reality.

Further, the Navajo Nation received only about $16 million through the trust
fund. The fund itself has generated about $8 million in interest; the total
value of the fund to the Navajo Nation has been only about $24 million.

”If the Navajo Nation could have its ‘dream bill,’ it would overturn the
relocation law and provide for a right of return for affected Navajo families.
Of course, we know that this is not going to happen,” Bitsuie told the
committee.

”Still, our spiritual ties to the land run deep and it would be a betrayal
of our beliefs if I did not again remind the committee of the nature of the
sacrifice that Navajo families who have left their ancestral land have had to
make.”


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