By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press
SANDERS, Ariz. Unlike most of the vast, impoverished Navajo Nation,
in this town all the roads are paved, schools and clinics are a short
drive away, and everyone has electricity and running water in their homes.
Those modern conveniences are what lured hundreds of Navajo families
to the "new lands" ranch land the federal government bought in the
early 1980s as part of a massive project to relocate thousands of
Navajos from Hopi land and hundreds of Hopis from Navajo land.
Now, a quarter century and $400 million later, the federal Office of
Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation is winding down what has become one of
the largest relocation efforts in U.S. history. The office expects to
move the last of the group some 40 families by next year.
The community of relocated Navajos near Sanders calls itself Nahata'
Dziil, or "planning with strength," and to some, the so-called New
Lands is a success story. The relocated families, they say, are
mostly doing well and the community has a bright future.
But there are persistent critics, along with some families who have
balked at the idea, refusing to move from their own land in eastern
Arizona that their families inhabited for generations. And now the
question looms: Can the New Lands remain self-sufficient once the
federal program ends?
In 1882, President Chester Arthur designated 2.5 million acres in
northern Arizona for the Hopi Tribe and "such other Indians as the
secretary of the Interior may see fit to settle thereon."
Prior to that date, Navajos had been herding sheep on the land in the
years since they returned from the Long Walk, as the Navajos call
their forced relocation and imprisonment in eastern New Mexico in the
The Hopi Tribe went to court in 1958 seeking return of the land the
Hopi tribe claimed as its own, and in 1962, a federal court in
Arizona deemed 1.8 million acres a joint use area.
Twelve years later, Congress approved the Navajo-Hopi settlement and
ordered the tribes to work out their differences over the land. That
never happened, and four years later, Congress divided the 1.8
million acres and ordered members of each tribe to leave the other
When the federal government proposed relocation as the solution to
the land dispute it helped create, some Navajos armed themselves and
threatened bloodshed if anyone tried to move them. Some allied
themselves with the American Indian Movement, vowing to stay on the
disputed land and lobby Congress for mercy.
Moving is not a concept widely embraced in the Navajo culture.
Navajos often bury their children's umbilical cords in the land to
tie them to it.
"We get used to our surrounding so much because we're part of our
surrounding," said Peterson Zah, a former Navajo chairman and
president, whose tenure was dominated by the relocation project. "You
live in the spiritual way, with all the plants and the vegetation,
the trees, the animal life, those kind of things people generally
But whether they liked it or not, Navajos complied with the law under
which they were provided a home and some benefits.
Glenna Thompson said Navajos often asked their creator to allow them
to stay on the disputed land.
"We prayed that we wouldn't be forced to move because that's where
our hearts are and that's where we wanted to stay," she said.
But as she saw other families near Teesto pick up and go, she and her
family also left first to Winslow and later to Sanders to live with
Others signed accommodation agreements to remain on Hopi land under
that tribe's jurisdiction. Some relocated to much smaller plots
across the reservation and in towns that border Navajo land.
While big-city life was an easy transition for some who worked and
whose children went to school off the reservation, early studies
found that others lost their homes because they could not pay water
and utility bills basic amenities they had been living without.
Life on new land
Ram Herder, 89, thought he might enjoy himself in the New Lands
located within the tribe's four sacred mountains and near the
railroad and Interstate 40. But he finds himself concerned with the
water quality and the soil that he says is sandier here than in
Howell Mesa where he grew up. The vegetation, he says, is not as lush
and he worries that people could be getting sick by eating livestock
that must be vaccinated.
"When the sheep eat good grass and that grass became part of our
nutrition, we were healthy," he said. "That's how I saw it in my time."
Each day, he walks out to a shed near his house and gathers hay to
feed to his sheep in a corral animals he said used to roam freely
before he relocated in 1987.
What the future holds for his children and grandchildren is another concern.
"I enjoyed life. I feel satisfied with my life," he said through an
interpreter. "The matter is 20, 30 years into the future, how our
grandchildren will feel. Are they going to blame us that we decided
to come here?"
Eilene Tsosie, 22, has similar thoughts of how her generation will
handle life away from the traditional reservation. At 3 years old,
she didn't understand why her family, led by her father's mother or
"nali" as she calls her in Navajo left eastern Arizona.
What made it successful, though, is that families moved together, she
said. Some even named street signs in Nahata Dziil after their hometowns.
Tsosie established a youth organization in Sanders and has been
working to create an archive of interviews, documents and photos in
hopes of connecting people like her to their past.
"I don't think the answer to it is to erase everything," she said.
"If you can show them this community is their own, they'll take more
responsibility in development."
Holding onto the old
About 400 Navajo families the largest concentration of relocatees
live in Sanders, a suburban-type setting along Interstate 40 near the
New Mexico state line.
The land is divided into range management units with pastures where
livestock graze as part of the only such management plan on the
reservation. Those who didn't have grazing permits had the option of
living in the rural part of the Navajo community.
Bringing along their livestock was important for many Navajo families
who grew up herding sheep, using the animal's wool to weave blankets
and rugs and the meat for mutton dishes popular in the culture.
The Office of Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation's budget provides for
staff in the New Lands who maintain windmills and monitor the forage.
The management system is unique on the reservation in that livestock
are rotated through the pastures and residents are limited in the
number of horses, sheep or cows they can keep on the land. Livestock
must be vaccinated and twice-yearly livestock counts keep people from
having too many animals on the range lands.
The rules are more restrictive than Navajos were used to. On the rest
of the reservation, livestock roam often without boundaries onto
customary use areas.
Tim Varner, New Lands manager for the Office Navajo-Hopi Indian
Relocation, said the regional U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs office
has been preparing a budget that would allow the agency to take over
the duties now handled by his office. Varner is hopeful Congress will
approve it as a special program, though he remains a little concerned
about how the livestock will be managed.
"Once we're gone, we have no control over what the federal government
does," he said.
The community is set to elect a five-member government commission in
November that would have the authority to issue home and business
site leases one of a few such local government models across the
reservation. Its economic development corporation, which is planning
a shopping center, recently held its first meeting.
Development is advancing, "and it seems like they're ready to go,"
said Nathan Begay, manager of the Nahata' Dziil Chapter, similar to a
"But they're dependent on the government," he said. "It seems like
they don't want to let that go."
The older generation that includes Herder might never fully adapt to
life on the New Lands. He feels that the federal government lied to
and abused the Navajo people.
"Mentally, for us older folks that moved down here, it still hurts,"
said Clarence Bedonie, 53, who helps manage the livestock in Sanders.
Once every five years he visits family in Big Mountain, who continue
to resist relocation and accuse him of selling out. As he walks
around the hills surrounding the area where he grew up, he sometimes
thinks he never should have left the place.
"But I didn't make that decision for myself," he says. "For the kids,
I didn't want them to be tied to the traditional rez."