Oscar Whitehair, 74, a Navajo Indian who lives in the Big Mountain area of northeastern Arizona, testified in a federal court hearing that "like a tree that is moved, I would wither and die," if he is forced to move off land his tribe has occupied for more than a century.
Whitehair and other Navajos testified Tuesday in a hearing aimed at overturning a federal law that ordered the relocation of Navajos and Hopis when lands that had been disputed for more than a century were partitioned between the two tribes.The Navajos testified that relocation to other areas of the reservation would destroy their traditional religious practices.
All of the 100 Hopi families and most of the 1,000 Navajo families left the former Joint-Use Area lands after the 1974 Relocation Act. About 220 Navajo families remain on Hopi partitioned land.
In January, the Big Mountain Legal Office, a legal-aid group based in Flagstaff, filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to enjoin the government from forcing the relocation of the Big Mountain residents.
The legal office claims that the Navajos' First Amendment rights regarding religious preference would be affected if they were moved.
Its suit was the basis for Tuesday's hearing before federal Judge Earl Carroll. The hearing was expected to continue Wednesday.
Whitehair testified that relocation would be worse than living where he does now, even though livestock reductions ordered by the Hopi Tribe have made life difficult for his family.
Whitehair, who lives in Cactus Canyon, said he has refused to move "because my roots are deeply embedded in the earth there."
He and several other Navajos said relocation would force them to leave sacred areas they use for prayer.
The relocation was ordered under the auspices of the 1974 Relocation Act, passed by Congress in an attempt to resolve a century-old land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes.
The Hopis say that Navajos encroached on their traditional land over time as many Navajos migrated west from northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico.
But the Navajos contend the disputed land was not being used before they arrived generations ago.
The Navajo Reservation surrounds the much smaller Hopi Reservation, and large portions of land west and south of the Hopi Reservation still are in dispute.