Eugene Harrison lives in an area of sagebrush-studded high desert that has been home to generations of his Navajo ancestors. He built a small house for his 14 children and corrals for his sheep and cattle.
But Harrison and other Navajos have been what the U.S. government calls "unauthorized occupants," living illegally on land owned not by their tribe but by the federal Bureau of Land Management.Now, under an agreement signed May 6 by the Navajo nation, the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Navajos and BLM are making a 150,000-acre land swap that will make Harrison and the others legal occupants of the land.
"I think it's a good deal," said Harrison, 57, who drove buses and trucks for the BIA before retiring in 1983. "I'm glad."
The government calls the area of northwestern New Mexico the Checkerboard Area because of its ownership pattern. The land east of the vast Navajo Reservation is a patchwork of small blocks owned variously by the Navajo tribe, the state, the federal government and private interests.
About 200 Navajos living on non-reservation areas of the Checkerboard have had no legal right to their land or houses.
Harrison could never get permission from the BLM to improve his house or property. And he couldn't qualify for tribal-sponsored programs that might help him build a bigger house or hook up to a waterline.
The Harrisons use kerosene lamps and drive 16 miles round-trip to get water clean enough for drinking and cooking. There is no refrigerator.
"We have a little TV that plugs into a (car) cigarette lighter. I like to see the news," Harrison said.
The Harrisons might not ever be able to pay for the five miles of lines it would take to run electricity to their house.
But Harrison has been investigating solar-powered electricity. That's another project for which there may be financial assistance once his property has become Navajo tribal trust land and he acquires a homesite lease.
The Navajos have had homesites and grazing lands here for generations. When they were released in 1868 after four years of internment by the U.S. government at Fort Sumner, N.M., many returned to those homesteads rather than going to the newly created reservation.
In 1974, Congress passed a land-swap law that legitimized about 500 families in the Checkerboard Area. Others were left out, either because they slipped through the cracks or because there were coal leases on the property they lived on.
Harrison was in the latter category, along with his neighbor Cecil Werito, who lives four miles down the dirt road past the Harrisons and about 20 miles from the small community of Nageezi.
The property is atop a 4-mile-wide coal seam, and for several years in the early 1980s Werito was active in a community effort to prevent companies that held leases from strip mining the property.
Now, coal companies have decided not to mine and have relinquished their leases, said BLM Navajo coordinator Danny Charlie.
According to Charlie, who started working on the occupancy issue for the BLM in 1974, 73 tracts of illegally occupied land will be legitimized by this month's agreement. Because many tracts include more than one household, he estimates about 200 people will be affected.
It is expected to take at least two years to complete the work required to make the land exchange final, Charlie said.
The swap involves more than the occupied parcels. The federal government, for example, will obtain about 8,500 acres of Navajo-owned land within nearby Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. The Navajos will get title to some tracts that are already developed, and some other land suitable for development.
The agreement also establishes a framework for future land exchanges of up 190,000 acres. Consolidating the scattered parcels will make it easier for federal agencies and the Navajos to manage their lands, officials say.