WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) - 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Fort Wingate is located on lands withdrawn from the public domain when the fort was established in 1870.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, Michael Black, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said.
Naize, who is also chairman of the Navajo Fort Wingate Task Force, discussed the Nation's opposition to a bill introduced in March by U.S. 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, on the other hand, thanked Pearce for introducing the bill and asked that Congress expand H.R. 4187 so it transfers all 25 of the reuse parcels at Fort Wingate to the two tribes on a 50-50 basis, rather than just the three pending parcels.
Legislation addressing all of the parcels will need to be enacted at some point, he said. "It makes sense to do it in a single piece of legislation, given how difficult it is to get bills through Congress these days."
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.
While Zuni has no natural gas pipelines and lacks the kind of electrical transmission and Internet access required for commercial development, Fort Wingate has all of these assets, he said.
Interstate Highway 40, the major East-West corridor, passes along Fort Wingate's northern border and has a direct exit into the fort. Burlington Northern Santa Fe's major rail line also passes along the northern border and has a rail spur into the fort.
In addition, there is an existing natural gas pipeline and electric transmission lines.
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.
"The Zuni Tribe has spent 15 futile and frustrating years trying to negotiate a fair division of the Fort Wingate parcels with the Navajo Nation," Quetawki said. "During that period, two Navajo presidents have agreed with us that the only fair division is a 50-50 split and negotiated a good-faith agreement that allowed each tribe to get the parcels most important to it.
"However, the Navajo Nation Council killed both of those agreements, variously demanding over
the years that Navajo get 100 percent, 90 percent, 75 percent, 65 percent - all without any justification other than that 'We are the big Navajo Nation and we can hold the Zuni Tribe hostage by delaying any resolution until Zuni gets so desperate for land at Fort Wingate that Zuni eventually caves in.'"
Despite Zuni's requests for a meeting, the Navajo MOU Team did not come to Zuni until March 15, and that meeting was the result of pressure brought by Pearce and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, Quetawki said. During the meeting he asked Naize whether his committee supported a 50-50 division of the lands.
"His answer was that Navajo was entitled to more than 50 percent. I then adjourned the meeting."
Since then, Navajo officials have stated in newspaper articles and in letters to congressmen that they have been engaging in constructive dialog with Zuni and that much progress has been made, Quetawki said. "There is simply no truth to those statements.
"The truth is that since the March 15th meeting broke up, the Zuni Tribe has not received a single communication from the Navajo Nation Fort Wingate MOU Team - not a word.
"A Navajo Nation Council member told one of our employees that the Council has no intention of returning to the Fort Wingate issue until after President (Ben) Shelly's term is up in January 2015," he said. "Another Navajo official told us that Navajo Nation believes the Zuni Tribe is so desperate to get some of the Fort Wingate lands along I-40 for economic development that if the Navajo Nation Council stalls the negotiations long enough, the Zuni Tribe, out of desperation, will agree to accept less than 50 percent of the lands."
Quetawki said Zuni believes it is time for Congress to act.
Pearce's bill would give the tribes six months to negotiate an agreement on how the lands should be divided. If they cannot reach agreement by then, the bill would divide the parcels between the two tribes on a 50-50 basis.
"It would do so using the division of the parcels that Navajo President Ben Shelly and I negotiated last year but which the Navajo Nation Council killed in its continuing effort to overreach," Quetawki said.
Lujan, D-N.M., ranking member of the subcommittee, asked both tribes if they would be willing to come together at an event sponsored by him to try to work through their differences. They agreed and were given 30 days to draft a proposal to provide to Lujan's office in preparation for the discussion, according to the Navajo Nation Washington Office.
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