A federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order and scheduled a court hearing in a dispute over fencing and other construction on land partitioned to the Hopi Tribe and considered sacred by Navajo Indians.
The order Thursday by U.S. District Judge Charles Hardy prohibits any work until the issue is discussed at a hearing June 27 on a motion for a preliminary injunction.In seeking the order, a group of Navajos said their religious sites and burial grounds are being "destroyed and desecrated" by placement of fences, water-diversion canals and other construction projects.
"We feel our prayers have been answered a little bit," said Grace Smith, a Navajo who has refused to leave her traditional homesite on what is now considered Hopi land.
She and other Navajos live on land that was given to the Hopi Tribe in 1974, when the federal government divided hundreds of thousands of acres of reservation land between the two tribes.
The Navajos filed suit Thursday against the Interior Department and the Bureau of Interior Affairs. They also asked Hardy to stop the Hopis from placing barbed-wire fences on traditional Navajo lands.
Several altercations have occurred in recent months as Navajos have tried to stop construction of fences and other projects.
The attorney representing the Navajos, Lee Phillips of the Big Mountain Legal Office in Flagstaff, told Hardy he fears great violence may erupt if the issue is not resolved.
"The Navajos believe they are put on this Earth to be caretakers of this area," Phillips said. "They believe that they are being forced to go out in the streets and protect it.
In the lawsuit, the Navajos claim the Interior Department and the Indian Affairs have failed to consult them on construction projects and have failed to conduct required archaeological studies on the areas being fenced off. The tribe says the government is violating its members' First Amendment rights to religious freedom.
Interior Department attorney Dan Jackson denied those claims, saying archaeological studies have been done.
He also cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said the federal government has the ultimate right to determine how federal land is used, even if it is considered sacred land.
Phillips, however, argued that Navajos have a right to religious freedom. He also said that the Navajos are not opposed to construction proj-ects on the land, but they would like to be involved in the decision-making process.
The bureau and Interior Department attorneys, however, said that the land now belongs to the Hopis and that the federal government was ordered in 1976 to restore the grazing potential of the land partitioned for the Hopis under the Relocation Act of 1974.
The 1974 act divided land claimed by both tribes.