SANDERS, Ariz. Unlike most of the vast, impoverished Navajo Nation, in this town all the roads are paved, schools and clinics are a short drive away, and everyone has electricity and running water in their homes.
Those modern conveniences are what lured hundreds of Navajo families to the "new lands" ranch land the federal government bought in the 1980s as part of a massive project to relocate thousands of Navajos from Hopi land and hundreds of Hopis from Navajo land.
Now, a quarter century and $514 million later, the federal Office of Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation is winding down what has become one of the largest relocation efforts in U.S. history. The office expects to move the last of the group some 40 families by next year.
The community of relocated Navajos near Sanders calls itself Nahata Dziil, or "planning with strength," and to some, the so-called New Lands is a success story. The relocated families, they say, are mostly doing well and the community has a bright future.
But there are persistent critics, along with some families who have balked at the idea, refusing to move from their own land in eastern Arizona that their families inhabited for generations. And now the question looms: Can the New Lands remain self-sufficient once the federal program ends?
In 1882, President Chester Arthur designated 2.5 million acres in northern Arizona for the Hopi Tribe and "such other Indians as the secretary of the Interior may see fit to settle thereon."
Prior to that date, Navajos had been herding sheep on the land in the years since they returned from the Long Walk, as the Navajos call their forced relocation and imprisonment in eastern New Mexico in the mid-1860s.
The Hopi Tribe went to court in 1958 seeking return of the land the Hopi tribe claimed as its own, and in 1962, a federal court in Arizona deemed 1.8 million acres a joint use area.
Twelve years later, Congress approved the Navajo-Hopi settlement and ordered the tribes to work out their differences over the land. That never happened, and four years later, Congress divided the 1.8 million acres and ordered members of each tribe to leave the other tribe's land.
When the federal government proposed relocation as the solution to the land dispute it helped create, some Navajos armed themselves and threatened bloodshed if anyone tried to move them. Some allied themselves with the American Indian Movement, vowing to stay on the disputed land and lobby Congress for mercy.
Moving is not a concept widely embraced in the Navajo culture. Navajos often bury their children's umbilical cords in the land to tie them to it.
"We get used to our surrounding so much because we're part of our surrounding," said Peterson Zah, a former Navajo chairman and president, whose tenure was dominated by the relocation project. "You live in the spiritual way, with all the plants and the vegetation, the trees, the animal life, those kind of things people generally don't experience."
But whether they liked it or not, Navajos complied with the law under which they were provided a home and some benefits.
Glenna Thompson said Navajos often asked their creator to allow them to stay on the disputed land.
"We prayed that we wouldn't be forced to move because that's where our hearts are and that's where we wanted to stay," she said.
But as she saw other families near Teesto pick up and go, she and her family also left first to Winslow and later to Sanders to live with her mother.
Others signed accommodation agreements to remain on Hopi land under that tribe's jurisdiction. Some relocated to much smaller plots across the reservation and in towns that border Navajo land.
While big-city life was an easy transition for some who worked and whose children went to school off the reservation, early studies found that others lost their homes because they could not pay water and utility bills basic amenities they had been living without.
Ram Herder, 89, thought he might enjoy himself in the New Lands located within the tribe's four sacred mountains and near the railroad and Interstate 40. But he finds himself concerned with the water quality and the soil that he says is sandier here than in Howell Mesa where he grew up. The vegetation, he says, is not as lush and he worries that people could be getting sick by eating livestock that must be vaccinated.
"When the sheep eat good grass and that grass became part of our nutrition, we were healthy," he said. "That's how I saw it in my time."
Each day, he walks out to a shed near his house and gathers hay to feed to his sheep in a corral animals he said used to roam freely before he relocated in 1987.
What the future holds for his children and grandchildren is another concern.
"I enjoyed life. I feel satisfied with my life," he said through an interpreter. "The matter is 20, 30 years into the future, how our grandchildren will feel. Are they going to blame us that we decided to come here?"
Eilene Tsosie, 22, has similar thoughts of how her generation will handle life away from the traditional reservation. At 3 years old, she didn't understand why her family, led by her father's mother or "nali" as she calls her in Navajo left eastern Arizona.
What made it successful, though, is that families moved together, she said. Some even named street signs in Nahata Dziil after their hometowns.
Tsosie established a youth organization in Sanders and has been working to create an archive of interviews, documents and photos in hopes of connecting people like her to their past.
"I don't think the answer to it is to erase everything," she said. "If you can show them this community is their own, they'll take more responsibility in development."
About 400 Navajo families the largest concentration of relocatees live in Sanders, a suburban-type setting along Interstate 40 near the New Mexico state line.
The land is divided into range management units with pastures where livestock graze as part of the only such management plan on the reservation. Those who didn't have grazing permits had the option of living in the rural part of the Navajo community.
Bringing along their livestock was important for many Navajo families who grew up herding sheep, using the animal's wool to weave blankets and rugs and the meat for mutton dishes popular in the culture.
The Office of Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation's budget provides for staff in the New Lands who maintain windmills and monitor the forage. The management system is unique on the reservation in that livestock are rotated through the pastures and residents are limited in the number of horses, sheep or cows they can keep on the land. Livestock must be vaccinated and twice-yearly livestock counts keep people from having too many animals on the range lands.
The rules are more restrictive than Navajos were used to. On the rest of the reservation, livestock roam often without boundaries onto customary use areas.
Tim Varner, New Lands manager for the Office of Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation, said the regional U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs office has been preparing a budget that would allow the agency to take over the duties now handled by his office. Varner is hopeful Congress will approve it as a special program, though he remains a little concerned about how the livestock will be managed.
"Once we're gone, we have no control over what the federal government does," he said.
The community is set to elect a five-member government commission in November that would have the authority to issue home and business site leases one of a few such local government models across the reservation. Its economic development corporation, which is planning a shopping center, recently held its first meeting.
Development is advancing, "and it seems like they're ready to go," said Nathan Begay, manager of the Nahata Dziil Chapter, similar to a town government.
"But they're dependent on the government," he said. "It seems like they don't want to let that go."
The older generation that includes Herder might never fully adapt to life on the New Lands. He feels that the federal government lied to and abused the Navajo people.
"Mentally, for us older folks that moved down here, it still hurts," said Clarence Bedonie, 53, who helps manage the livestock in Sanders.
Once every five years he visits family in Big Mountain, who continue to resist relocation and accuse him of selling out. As he walks around the hills surrounding the area where he grew up, he sometimes thinks he never should have left the place.
"But I didn't make that decision for myself," he says. "For the kids, I didn't want them to be tied to the traditional rez."