Bennett Freeze Officially Thawed    

by Felicia Fonseca, AP Writer
Edited by Al Swilling
Arizona Daily Sun
14 March 2009

The U.S. Senate has voted to lift a decades-old ban on development on about 700,000 acres in Arizona's Black Mesa region that both the Navajo and Hopi tribes claimed as their own.

The Senate unanimously approved a bill by Arizona senators John McCain* and Jon Kyl on Thursday night to lift a ban on development in the "Bennett Freeze" area. The ban had prevented about 8,000 Navajos who live there from putting in electric lines, repairing leaky roofs and running water lines to their homes unless the improvements were approved by the neighboring Hopi Tribe. Action by the House is still required, but no opposition is expected.

The ban was imposed in 1966 by former U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett as a way to settle the land dispute between the tribes.** It was lifted in late 2006 after the tribes*** reached an agreement and a federal judge signed off on it. Tribal members remained fearful that the freeze could be reinstated if the law that authorized it wasn't repealed.

"That's the last scar that needs to be erased," Leslie Dele, chairman of the Navajo Nation Council's Navajo-Hopi Land Commission, said Friday. "It will be there as memories, but at least we get it off the books. This will be good news for the people back home."

The Bennett Freeze area, on the western edge of the Navajo Nation, includes nine Navajo communities and arguably is the most depressed area on the 27,000 square-mile reservation.

A recent study commissioned by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs found that 77 percent of the homes in the area aren't suitable to live in, more than 40 percent of homes don't have electricity and 10 percent of residents make almost daily trips to haul water.

It's expected to cost upward of $1.3 billion to rehabilitate the area, and tribal officials largely will be looking to the federal government for funding.

"The federal government has a moral obligation to support the redevelopment of the former Bennett Freeze area," said Roman Bitsuie, executive director of the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission Office. "The construction freeze is over. The legal issues between the two tribes are largely resolved. Now it is time for all parties to work together to address the human issues that this legacy of tangled and unjust laws has left behind."

As part of the compact that put an end to the Bennett Freeze, the Navajo and Hopi tribes agreed to support legislation in Congress that would repeal the authorization of the freeze, said Scott Canty, an attorney for the Hopi Tribe.

An identical bill to the one passed Thursday had won approval from the Senate last year but wasn't voted on in the House, according to McCain's office.

"It's been sitting in front of Congress for quite some time, and we're glad they finally acted on it," Canty said.


 Editor's Notes:

*It should be noted that John McCain--the same John McCain who ran for President against Obama--was one of the people responsible for imposing the Bennett Freeze in direct violation of the human and civil rights of the Hopi and Dineh (Navajo). The ban was not just "imposed" by Bennett; it was enacted into law as a clause in the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974.

**The "land dispute" never existed in reality. It was contrived by the BIA-created Navajo Tribal Council and Hopi Tribal Council and presented to U.S. lawmakers by the tribal attorneys, who were bought and paid for by Peabody Coal Company. The "land dispute" was a sham designed to divide and conquer the Hopi and Dineh people by convincing U.S. lawmakers that there was an urgent need for action and that the only solution was to enact a land dispute settlement as directed by the attorneys for the two bogus tribal councils.

***The Navajo and Hopi Tribal Councils are not to be confused with the tribes themselves. The tribal councils were neither created nor run by the Hopi and Navajo tribes. Before the two tribal councils were created, each Hopi and Dineh village was self-governing, with no centralized government overseeing the entire Hopi or Dineh Nation.

By tradition the Hopi, who were primarily peaceful, spiritually oriented people and an agricultural society, were surrounded and protected by Dineh (the Navajo) by mutual agreement. The Hopi shared their agricultural knowledge and spirituality with Dineh, and the Dineh protected the Hopi from any enemy force who might try to overrun or harm the Hopi. They shared the land base and sacred sites. Many Hopi and Dineh intermarried, in fact. Therefore, there was no land dispute except the one created on paper by Peabody attorneys (attorneys known to work for Peabody but denied that fact when questioned about it).

The two tribal councils were created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). When the councils were created, the only authority they possessed was that of signing over Hopi and Dineh mineral and mining rights to outside, non-Native mining companies, namely Peabody Coal Company. It was not until later that the BIA set up the councils in a way that presented the illusion of representing the Hopi and Dineh people. Such misrepresentation so angered the Hopi people that they forcibly shut down the Hopi Tribal Council after announcing that it did not represent the Hopi people or their wishes. The BIA later reopened the Hopi Tribal Council in spite of protests from the Hopi people that it pretended to represent. To this day, the Hopi and Navajo Tribal Councils represent the BIA and Peabody's interests and not those of the Hopi or Dineh. It needs to be remembered that the purpose of the BIA is not to serve the best interests of the Indigenous American peoples. It's purpose is to keep Indigenous people under control and prevent them from becoming too independent--or too wealthy.

Just because the Bennett Freeze is said to be officially thawed does not mean that the attempts to forcibly relocate affected Dineh from their ancestral homes is at an end.

The truth is that bills to end the Bennett Freeze and its human rights violations have been before the Senate and Congress for more than three decades; but every time they came up for a vote, they were tabled by the Senate and never mentioned again. It could be another three or four decades before Congress decides to vote on the bill.

SENAA has been urging the public to demand that their Washington representatives vote in favor of the bills that would end the Bennett Freeze since 1998. That was 11 years ago, and the bill had already been before the Senate for several consecutive years before that.

What Senator McCain stands to gain by finally acting on the bill to end the Bennett Freeze is yet to be seen. You can bet the farm, though, that there's something in it for him. He has never been one to do any favors for the Indigenous American people, especially those indigenous to Arizona, unless it benefitted him in some way.

Al Swilling, SENAA International


Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.