Two tribes go to war over claims to Indian territory

Will Native Americans be driven from their homes? Tim Cornwell reports from Tuba City Navajo Reservation

A favourite story among the Navajo Indians tells of when an elderly shepherd from their tribe encountered United States astronauts training for a lunar landing. They asked if he had any message for the inhabitants of the Moon. "Be careful," he whispered into the offered tape recorder. "They will steal your land."

Since the Sixties, Nasa staff have indeed conducted training exercises on the Navajo reservation, a huge expanse of desolate high desert in Arizona. And the land, and its ownership, is once again proving a deeply divisive issue.

About 250 Navajo families face eviction next month. They farm sheep in an area formally declared part of the Hopi Indian reservation, in a tangled border dispute between the two tribes and the US government dating back a century. Under a deal signed by President Bill Clinton last year, the families can stay if they sign 75-year leases with the Hopi by 31 March. But most have apparently refused, threatening Washington with the embarrassing spectacle of native Americans being driven from their homes once again.

The rights and wrongs of this latest Indian skirmish are cloudy. Hopi leaders complain of "Navajo squatters", and say their patience is running out. Some Navajos have urged their fellow tribal members to "lease or leave". The Navajo Nation President, Albert Hale, first backed the settlement, but is wavering under charges of a sell-out. The Navajo Nation Council recently voted unanimously against it.

"How many times do you do wrong to people?" asked Mae Washington, a social worker at a Navajo boarding school in Tuba City, on the eastern half of the Navajo reservation. Her 62-year-old mother is among the hold-outs. For people such as Mrs Washington, the episode simply caps decades of mistreatment. She said of her mother: "She is going to sit there. They can throw her over the fence, and they can kill her. My question is, is this America, is this where it is at?"

Armed with a network of cell phones and an Internet site, Indian activists are encouraging volunteers to join the "resisters", as they are known. Several Europeans - including at least one Briton - have reportedly joined the Navajo families.

The roots of the dispute run back to 1882, 20 years after the US cavalry led by Kit Carson broke the Navajos with a bitter scorched-earth campaign, and eight years before the battle of Wounded Knee ended the Indian wars. US President Chester Arthur granted 2.4 million acres in northern Arizona to the Hopis and "other Indians". The Navajos became the dominant people on the land.

In 1974 the US Congress finally passed legislation to divide the reservation between the two tribes. The Navajos got the lion's share, with 110,000 people living on 26,000 square miles today, as opposed to the Hopis' 10,000 members on 2,300 square miles. But in the last 20 years, more than 11,000 Navajos have been moved from Hopi land. While the US government paid more than $300m to buy new homes and relocate them, many families failed to adapt, it is said. Allegedly, some lost their property because they failed to understand electricity bills and property taxes, others were given polluted land.

The 1,200 Navajos who have hung on say the leases would put their lives under control of outsiders, and accuse the Hopis of being chiefly interested in vast coal deposits said to lie below their ranches. Some have hinted at armed resistance.

The Navajo have a history as nomadic shepherds, and claim a spiritual relationship with the land. Mother Earth, they say, can be owned by no one. The Hopi are traditionally a more settled people. "Many people come around and tell us to go, but we say no," Alvin Clinton, a Navajo medicine man, told the Gallup Independent, a local newspaper. "We stay here because this is our way of life."

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