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Decades later, families wait as Arizona tribal relocation office struggles

WASHINGTON — The federal government’s attempts to end a bitter, centuries-long land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes was supposed to take five years and $41 million to resettle what was then estimated at around 1,000 families.

But more than three decades and $564 million later, there are still families waiting to be compensated. The Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation is still sifting through the remnants of what turned out to be more than 7,000 families who applied to the program.

Relocated families complain that the program has severed important ties with their own people and with their ancestral lands. Tribal officials say that that, in turn, has contributed to a number of social ills, like alcoholism, and a “tremendously significant” loss of culture.

In short, critics say, the government’s relocation efforts have failed at almost every turn.

But they don’t want it shut down. Not yet, at least.

“Decent homes, decent roads. They said they would do it, now we would like to have them finish the relocation process,” said Rosa Honani, a Hopi woman who testified last month on the relocation to a congressional subcommittee. “To us it hasn’t really started.”

Relocation office employees said they are also frustrated by the pace of the work but that there is only so much they can do in the face of budget cuts – a point echoed in a recent audit that said the office will need more money to finish the job.

“We don’t have the money to move more people,” said Nancy Thomas, chief financial officer of the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation. “It’s frustrating in the sense that we know people are waiting for homes, but we don’t have the money.”

The issue has its roots in the 19th century, when the government designated 2.4 million acres of northeastern Arizona as reservation land for several tribes – but did not delineate boundaries within the reservation.

Squabbles between Hopi and Navajo ended up in court in the 1950s, which led to the designation almost a decade later of a 1.8 million acre “joint use area.” But disputes continued, and in 1978 a federal judge drew a clear boundary, ordering dozens of Hopis relocated off Navajo land and thousands of Navajos off Hopi land.

Dividing the land, it turns out, was the the easy part.

All the families have moved, but many say they were moved into substandard housing, while others are still waiting for the relocation benefits the government promised.

“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the relocation folks,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing last month. “We’re seriously looking at this problem from the Navajo perspective and from the Hopi perspective, and we’re trying to come up with a better solution than what is being done right now.”

To date, the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation has moved 3,511 families – only 27 Hopi families were affected, the rest have been Navajo. But there are still 110 families waiting for relocation benefits and hundreds more waiting out a lengthy appeals process.

At the current annual funding level of about $7.7 million, the office said it can only relocate 16 families each year.

Representatives of both the Hopi and Navajo are unhappy with the relocation office, which they call well-meaning but wasteful, using 70 percent of its budget on administrative costs.

“Our beef with them has to do with how they have been spending their money in the process of relocation,” said Walter Phelps, the chairman of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission.

“We found they are spending more money and more time denying (applications), and then the denials trigger an appeals process, and there are more resources being spent on that than there are building homes to relocate families,” said Phelps, a Navajo.

But Thomas said that, far from being wasteful, her office is “one of the most efficient organizations around because we’re small and there’s no one else to do the work.”

“There are not multiple people doing the same job,” she said. “We’re at the bare minimum.”

She notes that in the 1980s and ’90s, when the office budget was closer to $25 million, it had more than 100 staff members. Staff has since been cut to 35 people.

Many of those awaiting relocation benefits are elderly or have poor living conditions, adding urgency to the slow relocation process.

“They say, ‘Where we live now is so terrible. Can anyone do anything?'” said Larry Ruzow, the attorney for the relocation office. “It’s hard to tell them no – that there won’t be enough money this year.”

A December report by the Interior Department’s Inspector General said that the relocation process will not be finished anytime soon without additional funding or without “legislative changes … such as the authorizing of a lump-sum payment in lieu of a replacement home.”

Calvert said his committee – which has the authority to makes changes to the program – is considering making direct grants to the tribes as an alternative way to close out the program.

“We’d much rather see money granted to the tribal councils and make their own determinations on how that money is to be spent,” said Calvert, who visited the relocation areas in January with other lawmakers to assess the program first-hand.

One of the sites they visited was Yuwehloo Pahki – the community where Hopi families were relocated.

Honani did not have to move, but she lives in Yuwehloo Pahki. She said houses there are “just the four walls” and that many residents lack running water or electricity.

“It wasn’t done right. It was just a quick, quick,” she said of the early years of the relocation process.

“They put their homes up quick only because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. They had to relocate,” Honani said. “Some of them moved in before it was done, and it seems like they never came back out to finish what has to be done.”

Honani said the relocated families want officials “to fulfill what they said would happen – water, electricity and accessible roads.”

But Ruzow said the Hopi relocation has been problematic since the beginning because of the site chosen by the relocated families.

“When the Hopis moved in the late 1970s to early 1980s, they chose to move to an area that is quite remote,” Ruzow said. “We recommended that they don’t do that.”

Yuwehloo Pahki is separate from the main Hopi reservation, and is surrounded by the Navajo reservation.

“They said put houses here. We did the best we could,” Ruzow said.

Ruzow said the Hopi families were given solar panels and water cisterns. The office has also re-examined the case files on the 27 Hopi families and found that all complaints made within the two-year housing warranty were addressed.

But even when relocation works, there are problems, say those familiar with the program.

Tribal members believe the relocation has contributed to social problems and has resulted in the loss of culture.

“We are now meeting with the children of the families that have been relocated, and even though their families have received benefits, the new generation, they are landless,” Phelps said. “The psychological and emotional impact is really tremendous.”

That has been the case for Colleen Tso, a Navajo who was relocated off the newly created Hopi reservation in 1983

“My children will not be able to experience what I experienced – caring for the animals and learning from elders,” Tso said.

The program worked for Tso: The federal government moved her into a 1,500-square-foot, four-bedroom home in Flagstaff where she lives with her family. They were moved within the program’s original five-year deadline.

But in moving, Tso and her family left behind hundreds of livestock, a large garden and the land they called home.

“A lot of these younger ones, they don’t speak Navajo. They don’t know how to ride horses,” she said. “That part of the tradition is all gone.”