WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — After 15 years of struggling to come to an agreement on a fair distribution of thousands of acres of land at Fort Wingate Army Depot, the Navajo Nation and the Zuni Tribe are still miles apart, not only on what justifies “fair,” but whether Congress should make the call on how to divide the parcels.
Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize and Zuni Gov. Arlen Quetawki presented testimony Aug. 2 to the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaskan Native Affairs during an oversight hearing exploring resolutions to disputes concerning Indian tribes over land use and development.
Fort Wingate is located on lands withdrawn from the public domain when the fort was established in 1870. It closed in 1993 as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Act. There are approximately 20,700 acres of public domain lands, divided into 22 parcels, many of which have cultural and historical significance to the tribes. But because the inactive installation was used to store and dispose of explosives and military munitions, some lands are too contaminated to be reused.
The Department of the Interior has indicated that, upon satisfactory completion of environmental restoration and clearance of unexploded ordnance, the intent is to eventually transfer the lands into trust for Navajo and Zuni upon agreement by the two tribes, said Michael Black, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Naize, who is also chairman of the Navajo Fort Wingate Task Force, discussed the Nation’s opposition to a bill introduced in March by Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M. The bill, H.R. 4187, calls for the transfer of approximately 4,950 acres of unused land to the Zuni Tribe, and 907 acres of remediated land to the Navajo Nation. Any future remediated land would be transferred to the tribes in a manner that would ultimately reflect a 50-50 split.
“The introduction of H.R. 4187 has fundamentally changed the nature of this dispute from a disagreement over how best to divide the land to an issue of tribal sovereignty,” Naize said. “If tribal sovereignty means anything, surely it means that where two tribes sit in opposition, barring a truly urgent deadline, those tribes should be allowed to work out their differences between themselves without outside interference.”
The tribes are up against a 2020 deadline to reach an agreement. The introduction of H.R. 4187, which would dictate the terms of that agreement, is now being used to one tribe’s advantage over the other, Naize said.
“A federally imposed solution to a tribal land dispute would be considered, by any reasonable person, an affront to the very notion of tribal sovereignty.”
He cited the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974 as proof that a federally imposed solution to land disputes is almost never satisfactory and results in massive pain and expense for all the parties.
Naize said the Navajo Nation is willing to have an independent mediator come in to help the tribes work through their differences. “We are dedicated to coming to terms with the Zuni Pueblo. However, we cannot accept a situation where our negotiation is shut down in favor of a federally imposed solution.”
Gov. Quetawki said Zuni needs to get control over its share of the lands as soon as possible, particularly those that have commercial value, so it can engage in economic development activities to reduce the tribe’s 65 percent unemployment rate.
Zuni has offered to divide the lands along the northern border of Fort Wingate equally with the Navajo Nation so both tribes can benefit, he said.
— This article appeared on page A4 of the Albuquerque Journal