Navajos poor — their land rich

Tribe fighting for correct royalties on wealth of oil

Published: Sunday, Feb. 8 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

Mary Johnson and brother Kee Jones of Montezuma Creek, San Juan County, stand near oil pipelines that cross land they own with three other siblings.

Ben Chrisman, Associated Press

MONTEZUMA CREEK, San Juan County — Against the soft blue sky, oil wells steadily pull the black riches from Mary Johnson's land. She can hear the oil running through the brown pipes that crisscross through hills and valleys like twisted licorice.

It wasn't so long ago that Johnson, 78, a member of the vast Navajo Nation, believed all this production meant dollars for her. The federal government managed her royalties for her, sending statements and checks — sometimes for $3,000, sometimes $200.

But the checks never seemed to come regularly, even though the wells kept pumping, the oil kept flowing. Johnson still lived in a tiny, pale yellow house with no running water, a propane stove and just one bedroom.

It didn't seem right.

Across the country, but mostly in the West, many other Indians claim they, too, haven't been paid properly for oil and gas production from their land. A class-action lawsuit representing a half-million Indian landowners accuses the Interior Department of mismanagement dating back to 1887.

The government admits it could have done a better job and is now revamping the system. But many Indians are skeptical the problem will ever be resolved.

As oil pumped from her land, Johnson drew her arms tight around her waist in the brisk afternoon breeze and asked, "Why do I have to suffer so much?"

Decades of disarray

When the government took the land from Indians and forced them onto reservations in the 1800s, the reservations were divided into sections, or allotments. Those allotments can be leased by oil, gas and timber companies, who pay the federal government for that privilege. The government, in turn, holds the money in trust accounts for the Indians.

But the trust accounts have been in disarray for decades. Records have not been kept up. Required appraisals on property leases have not always been done.

AP graphicDNews graphicPoverty amid a wealth of resourcesRequires Adobe Acrobat.

In 1996, Blackfeet banker Elouise Cobell, determined to find out why the system was so inefficient, filed the class-action lawsuit against the Interior Department. The plaintiffs claim they are owed as much as $137 billion.

But unless a historical accounting is done, there is no way of knowing if every Indian — or any Indian — received what was due.

In the 1950s, oil was discovered here in remote Montezuma Creek and nearby Aneth, two communities that are part of the Navajo Nation — one of the most mineral-rich tribes in the country. The reservation covers 18 million acres through Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

With more than 180,000 members, it is the country's largest Indian tribe but also one of the poorest. More than 40 percent of its people live in poverty. The median household income is just $20,000, less than half the national median.

'Hopeless feeling'

Johnson has lived here in Montezuma Creek her entire life. A petite woman whose deep wrinkles make her look perpetually tired, she speaks only Navajo.

A few dusty roads off the main highway, the one-room, stone house where she grew up still stands about a mile and a half away from her home today. Oil pipelines run across land she owns with five siblings.

Johnson gestures to her mother's grave in the distance. She remembers the day a company drilling for oil hit her mother's casket.

The oil and gas lease for her property was signed in 1953, and Johnson and her family trusted the Bureau of Indian Affairs to pay them for the production on their land. Like many Indians, Johnson has no other income.

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