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Development slow after building ban lifted on Navajo Nation

By Felicia Fonseca
Tuba City, Arizona (AP) 12-07

The pavement stops abruptly here, giving way to a sandy, washboard road that takes residents onto land where flour sacks in windows shield homes from the elements, electricity and running water are scarce and tires keep roofs from blowing away.

A sign once posted here read: “Now you’re entering third world country. Bennett Freeze.”

The poverty and lack of infrastructure that is entrenched on the western side of the Navajo Nation – the country’s largest Indian reservation – was worsened by a 40-year freeze on building and improvements imposed by the federal government.

A year after the freeze was lifted, development is barely creeping forward.

No money has been allocated by the federal or tribal government to rehabilitate 700,000 acres of land that constituted the Bennett Freeze area. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, has, however, provided $1 million for a one-year study of what sort of development should occur.

“That area has been neglected for many, many years, and it is going to be a huge challenge to rehabilitate the area,” said Tim Varner, a member of a task force established by Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. to recommend planning.

“At this point it’s anybody’s guess exactly what the extent of the need is out there,” he said.

On the 27,000 square-mile Navajo Nation, which extends into parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, residents are deeply rooted in the land, which they use to raise livestock and farm. When the Hopi Tribe laid claim to Navajo land it said was its aboriginal homeland, a decades-long dispute between the two tribes ensued.

In 1966, then-U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett imposed a ban on new construction or improvements that prohibited extension of water and electrical lines on the acreage unless approved by the Hopis.

Hardly anyone thought the freeze would last very long. The tribes finally reached an agreement last year, and a federal judge signed an order in December 2006 lifting the freeze.

Few people have had new houses built since the freeze was lifted, and only a handful have received electricity through the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

Dorothy Reid is one of them. Her bright blue home was completed in April with the help of her family and a tribal housing program. For the first time in her 82 years, she has electricity and running water.

Instead of a wood stove, she now relies on a space heater to warm her home and can store food in a refrigerator.

Reid’s neighbor, Wesley Bilagody’s eyes brighten as he talks about a home that’s still under construction.

Even at 85 and after a couple of heart surgeries, Bilagody easily walks up the flagstone steps to the partially completed home that sits on a hill just behind his present home. So far, he’s only peered through the windows.

“Looks like a big space in there,” he said.

But after waiting most of his life for a new house, Bilagody says celebrating won’t be easy. “I’m too old,” he said.

For residents, like Anne Jackson, who live within a one-mile radius of a religious site, construction still is banned.

It’s “hopeless to hope,” Jackson says.

On the south side of Tuba City in Kerley Valley – named after an Anglo man who established the trading post there – Jackson opens the door to her one-room hogan. It’s outfitted with light switches, light fixtures, water faucets and a bathroom, but none of those work.

Two plywood outhouses sit on the back of her property – one for boys and one for girls. The foundation of a mud hogan she once lived in lies next to another ceremonial hogan that is patched up with old plywood and plastic.

When her sons come home, they sleep in a wooden shack that has a dirt floor. Inside, tree stumps serve as a foundation for the beds and blankets hanging from the ceiling serve as insulation.

This is the land where Jackson remembers playing store, herding sheep and gathering water from a nearby spring.

“No matter what, I want to stay here, and let my grandsons live here, grow up generation to generation,” she said. “But I would like to have a house built for them. That’s my main concern.”

In the early 90s after making numerous pleas to the tribal government to keep a ditch behind her house from flooding, heavy rains swept through her home, leaving puddles of water on the floor. Her nearly 2-year-old granddaughter was playing nearby and crawled into the water.

“She drown right in back where we had the old hogan,” Jackson says pointing to the east.

“I feel angry. I say a lot of words to them (officials),” she said. “They come around, they just say ... ‘can’t do nothing about it because Bennett Freeze.”’

While the task force is discussing how various tribal agencies can help, Varner cautions “it’s probably a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s actually needed out there.”

“The expectations out there are very high,” he said. “This whole Bennett Freeze issue has been dragging out for many, many years, and I think people thought as soon as the agreement was reached and the freeze was lifted, there’d be immediate action.”

Varner doesn’t expect any major projects to be planned for at least another year and he said those likely won’t be completed without the help of federal funds.

Frank Bilagody, the president of the Tuba City Chapter, said the chapter has plans for the needs of the area in place “in case the Navajo Nation government or the U.S. comes out and checks.”

“There is still a lot of hopelessness out there, despair, that we’re still being neglected, abused by the government,” Bilagody said. “It’s just not moving fast enough.”