"Land Grab." L. A. Weekly. 11-17 July 1986: 16.




Some things never change, including the government's attitude toward Native American real estate.


Last Sunday, the official deadline came for still another sordid episode in the history of relations between the immigrant invaders who formed the United States of America and the original inhabitants of this continent.

            When Broken Rainbow won an Academy Award this year [1986], an embarrassing situation for Congress grew worse. The stinging documentary motion picture by Maria Florio and Victoria Mudd shows the so-called Navajo-Hopi land dispute for what it is: a fraud.

            The award means that the message of the traditional Navajo and Hopi people will be communicated to a large international audience of television viewers and movie-goers--a message that has been strategically blacked out of other major media sources.

            The justification for Public Law 93-531 passed by Congress in 1974 was that the Navajo-Hopi land dispute is so serious that 10,000 Navajos near Big Mountain, Arizona, must be relocated, forcibly if necessary. It would be the largest forced relocation of U.S. citizens since the relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

            But tradition-minded Navajo and Hopi claim there never was a land dispute. They say the dispute was invented to get the Navajos and their livestock off mineral-rich land in the Hopi reservation so it could be developed by mining companies such as Peabody Coal and Kerr-McGee.

            At the center of the story is John S. Boyden, a Salt Lake City lawyer and devout Mormon. His involvement with Indians and their land goes back to 1946, when the Indian Claims Commission Act was passed. The new commission gave large amounts of cash to relocated Indians whose land had been peddled away to mining companies. Boyden made a bundle representing Indian claims in the southwest U.S. He was also on the payroll of Peabody Coal.

           In the 1950s, during the Cold War-era surge of mineral development and the pro-nuclear "atoms for peace" movement, the Department of the Interior chose Boyden to settle claims for the Navajo-Hopi lands in Arizona. Boyden formed a Hopi Tribal Council that consisted of several First Mesa Hopi who had been converted to Mormonism, based on an election in which about 10 percent of the Hopis on the reservation voted. The newly elected Tribal Council then hired Boyden as their lawyer.

            Meanwhile, at the Navajo reservation, a privately hired lawyer named Norman Littell was representing the Navajos before the Indian Claims Commission. Boyden had applied for this job in 1946 at the behest of the Department of the Interior, but the Navajos rejected him. Before Littell, the Navajos were the largest but poorest tribe in the U.S. Littell's reforms, including the implementation of competitive bidding for minerals, made the Navajos the richest U.S. tribe.


The Navajo, whose huge reservation touches four states, outnumber the Hopi about 75 to 1. Lying completely within the Navajo reservation, the Hopi reservation is home to both Hopis, who live in villages, and semi-nomadic Navajo shepherds. The Navajos and Hopis have lived peacefully together in this area since before the Spanish occupation three centuries ago.

            In 1958, Public Law 85-547, authored by Boyden, gave both Navajo and Hopi tribal councils the right to own reservation land. This set the stage for land disputes between them, which came in the form of a court case, Healing v. Jones, which was decided in 1959 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 1963.

            Dewey Healing and Paul Jones were, at the time, chairmen of the Hopi and Navajo tribal councils, respectively. The lawyers were Boyden and Littell. Even though President Chester A. Arthur had explicitly proclaimed that other Indians were welcome within the boundaries of the Hopi reservation his administration established in 1882, Boyden argued that the invitation did not include the Navajos who were already living in that area. The court agreed, and set aside most of the Hopi reservation as exclusively Hopi land, with the rest to be shared with the Navajos as a "joint-use area."

            When Stewart Udall, the brother of Arizona Congressman Morris Udall, became the secretary of the interior during the Johnson administration, the department increased its efforts to oust Littell. Claiming that the tribal councils were extensions of the federal government, Udall, as federal supreme authority, tried to fire Littell.

            In 1964, a three-judge appellate court claimed Udall had no authority to fire a private attorney, but in 1969 another three-judge appellate court reversed that decision, and Littell was officially fired by Udall.

            With Littell out of the way, Boyden pressed forward with more legislation. Hiring Evans and Associates, a Salt Lake City public-relations firm used by the Hopi Tribal Council, Boyden spread word that range wars were taking place at the Navajo-Hopi reservations. This was patently false, but Time and Newsweek ran Boyden's version of the story.

            Boyden's efforts culminated with the passage of Public Law 93-531, which authorized division of the joint-use area and the relocation of 10,000 Navajos. With the exception of a handful of congressmen and senators who knew of the relationship between Boyden and the Interior, those who voted for P.L. 93-531 were completely ignorant about the Indian situation and trusted the land-dispute story of their colleagues, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and Congressman Morris Udall. Their story also convinced President Ford, who signed the bill into law in 1974.


Behind the scenes, much is at stake: The nuclear industry relies upon cheap uranium from the Hopi reservation, and the Indian labor force there is unorganized and uneducated to the dangers of radioactive materials.

            The Kerr-McGee Corporation, which operates most of the uranium mining on the Hopi reservation, has a long history of power politics. The late Senator Robert Kerr, who founded the company, was active in the Senate around the time of the Healing v. Jones decision. Kerr-McGee was also the nuclear company involved in the Karen Silkwood case.

            The coal strip-mining on the Hopi reservation is primarily the work of Boyden client Peabody Coal, the largest coal producer in the U.S. The strip-mining began around 1955, when Stuyvesant Peabody Jr. resigned as president, and a Kansas City family, the Kelces, took over. Strip-mining, or surface-mining, is cheaper than underground mining, since the work is done with large shovels and bulldozers, not a human labor force. Unfortunately, strip-mining at Big Mountain is destroying large portions of land that is sacred to both the Hopis and Navajos. This devastation will spread if, as feared, the Hopi open to mining any or all of the 1.8 million acres of land the Navajo will vacate under P.L. 93-531.

            The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City is continuing its efforts to convert the Hopi tribe to Mormonism. The Hopi Tribal Council has remained entirely Mormon since it was formed in the 1950s. (Boyden is Mormon, and so are the principals of his PR firm, Evans and Associates.) It is safe to say that at least some of the money to be made by relocating the Navajos will be channeled to Utah in the form of private church donations from Hopi Mormon converts.

            Ironically, Hopi prophecies predict disastrous events if "precious things are dug from the land," including "a container of ashes thrown from the sky which could burn the land and boil the oceans." In 1948, traditional Hopi religious leaders met at Hotevilla Kiva, a sacred Hopi shrine, to discuss these prophecies in relation to events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

            The leaders also believe that Big Mountain and the surrounding Four Corners area is the spiritual center of the American continent, and that to destroy it with strip-mining and pollution would invite great disaster. That uranium mined from their lands is used for nuclear weapons-testing is also a matter of concern to the Hopi.

            Efforts to repeal P.L. 93-531 have arisen in an emotional appeal to Congress from both the Navajo and the Hopi tribes. Despite the position of Boyden's Hopi Tribal Council, the traditional Hopis are friendly toward the Navajos and wish them to remain. Other non-Indians have created a movement to repeal P.L. 93-531, including letter-writing campaigns, support groups and the distribution of Big Mountain information.

            As current Hopi Tribal Chairman Ivan Sydney and Navajo Tribal Chairman Peterson Zah continue to negotiate with members of the Reagan administration, it's hard to imagine that the tribal councils will maintain any sort of legitimacy.

            Nevertheless, Washington is still trying to downplay the situation. Senator Barry Goldwater says, "Well, if they want to make trouble out here, I have the Arizona National Guard all ready and we'll give them all the trouble they want." It's hard to tell how much he's bluffing, but certainly such action would be in a well-established tradition of U.S. treatment of native peoples. When Indian affairs were handled by the Department of War, massive relocations were implemented for many tribes, in which one out of four Indians died. At Big Mountain, there have been no wars, no bloodshed. The "Navajo-Hopi land dispute" is a fraudulent rumor.

            Perhaps the bottom line in this issue is the preservation of Indian culture. The Hopi Tribal Council, who have discovered the American way of life through Mormonism, are bound to receive more favors from the non-Indians than those Indians who, like the traditional Hopis and Navajos, resist the American way of life in order to retain their own ancestral values.

            Whatever the outcome, this issue will stand in the history books as a prime example of what happens when Native Americans face a 20th-century bureaucracy. On one side are lawyers, judges, legislators and mining companies. On the other side are the American Indians, who simply want to keep their homes.