By Terri Jo Neff
The Navajo Nation has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior and the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation in an attempt to secure the proper conclusion of federal relocation for over 16,000 Navajos, something that was previously ordered to be completed in 1986.
The lawsuit filed in late August with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona in Prescott on behalf of the Nation and more than 50,000 of its affected citizens seeks a court order forcing the U.S. Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (Office of Relocation) to remain open and provide the relocation assistance, and community facilities and services promised and mandated by Congress decades ago.
According to the lawsuit, the Office of Relocation established in 1988 and its predecessor, the Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation Commission, have relocated over 3,700 households of Navajo families comprising over 16,000 Navajo citizens from their ancestral lands within the 2.5 million acres of the 1882 Reservation.
But the Nation alleges the Office of Relocation has failed to provide relocation services for many other households, and has failed to ensure the availability of community facilities and services -such as water, sewers, roads, schools, and health facilities- for households at on-reservation relocation sites.
The Relocation Act is the compilation of Congressional actions dating back to the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act of 1974 and its subsequent amendments, including the Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation Amendments Act of 1980 and the Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation Amendments of 1988. It involves mandatory relocation of Navajos off some Reservation land partitioned off for members of the Hopi Tribe.
The Nation’s lawsuit puts forth claims on behalf of itself and over 50,000 of its citizens being adversely affected by the ongoing failure of the Office of Relocation to properly discharge its federal duties, which included implementing a Congressionally approved relocation plan.
The Office of Relocation traces its start to 1943 when a 642,000-acre area of the Reservation designated as District 6 was set aside for the exclusive use of the Hopi Tribe. Eventually all Navajo residents of District 6 were evicted by the U.S. government.
The remaining 1.8 million or so acres of the Reservation were for the “joint, equal, and undivided” (JUA) use of both Tribes. However, conflicts over the JUA continued for several years, and by 1974 a partition plan was enacted for the forced relocation of thousands of Navajos off what became known as Hopi Partitioned Land (HPL).
The lawsuit calls the still ongoing relocation of Navajos from HPL “the largest forced relocation of any racial group in the United States since the relocation and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.”
Hopis also had to leave what came known as Navajo Partitioned Land (NPL), and according to government reports that part of the relocation was completed by 2013.
The Settlement Act 1974 tasked a Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation Commission with developing a relocation plan. It also required a reduction in livestock grazing on JUA lands, which harmed several Navajo farmers and ranchers.
In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was ordered to acquire land from the Navajo Nation within Arizona and Mexico “to be held in trust” for the Nation. Those lands would come to be known as “New Lands” and would be where many of the relocatees were placed.
Over the years, Congress passed laws related to a formal Relocation Plan under which the United States had a duty to assure schools, roads, power, and other facilities for relocation to the New Lands. Other provisions of the Settlement Act took effect in July 1981 with a five-year deadline for relocation to be completed.
However, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 1991 noted that only 68 percent of the eligible families had been relocated. By then, the July 1986 deadline had been missed by five years.
In 2005, a Congressional hearing noted that the cost of the federal relocation program over the preceding 36 years was almost half a billion dollars, which was more than 10 times what Congress estimated in 1974. The cost was also equivalent to what the United States was spending at the time in Iraq every 36 hours, the lawsuit states.
By 2018, the Office of Relocation announced it planned to cease operations and transfer its activities to another agency, even though the Department of Interior admitted the Relocation Act did not authorize such a move. Hundreds of Navajo relocation-certified households were still awaiting services at the time. Many others had the right to pursue eligibility by filing a claim with the federal court of appeals, the Department of Interior reported.
Even so, the Office of Relocation contended it had “fulfilled the duties it was legislatively assigned by providing relocation benefits to all individuals who were found eligible and that other services such as infrastructure should be provided by another permanent agency.”
The Navajo Nation and the Hope Tribe oppose the transfer, which even the Bureau of Indian Affairs admits “could further delay relocation.” The GAO worries that transferring relocation to another agency “likely would increase” program costs and delay completion of relocation.
“July 2021 was the 35th anniversary of the statutory deadline to complete relocation,” the Nation’s lawsuit states. “However, relocation still has not yet been completed and significant issues and work remain outstanding to complete relocation.” In addition, not all of the 400,000 acres of New Lands has been acquired and transferred as required under the Relocation Act, the lawsuit points out.
But it isn’t just direct relocation services to families that the Office of Relocation is accused of failing to provide.
The Office of Relocation is also responsible for developing community facilities and services, such as water, sewers, roads, schools, and health facilities, as well as power, telephone, and other utilities, at the relocation sites, many of which are on the New Lands, which is wholly populated by Navajo relocatees and their families.
According to the lawsuit, many relocatees and their communities (known as Chapters) rely on extensive unpaved roads that are in poor condition, live in homes with no indoor plumbing or easy-access potable water supplies, and do not have proper watering systems for livestock.
“Many communities with many relocatees lack sufficient electricity or appropriate septic or sewer systems,” the lawsuit contends. “These issues are especially problematic for elders during cold winters. There also are inadequate schools in many relocate areas,” which require students to commute hours each way to school.
“Finally, many Chapters seriously impacted by relocation lack adequate access to health and emergency facilities, which places all lives there at greater risk,” the lawsuit alleges. “This extreme delay is also unreasonable because it fundamentally concerns human health and welfare.”
The Nation is asking for an injunction prohibiting the Office of Relocation from shutting down. The lawsuit also seeks an order compelling the Department of Interior to ensure all Relocation Act services and benefits are made available without further delay.
An answer is expected to the filed by the U.S. Government later this month.