Published September 6, 2017
WINDOW ROCK – A federal district judge for the District Court of Arizona has overturned a decision of the Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation (“ONHIR”), in favor of Rosita Charles, one of the thousands of Navajo tribal members displaced from their homes as a result of the Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act.
Attorney General Ethel Branch stated, “ONHIR has operated without oversight for over 20 years. This decision is the first of many that will cast light on the arbitrary and manifestly unfair processes ONHIR has used to deny our most vulnerable Navajo tribal members the benefits they were promised in exchange for being callously ripped from their homelands. These benefits cannot begin to compensate for the human rights violations that continue to bring our relocatees such deep pain, but at least now ONHIR will be held to a basic standard of fairness and justice.”
Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch
The Navajo-Hopi Settlement Act, 25 U.S.C. §640d et seq, was enacted on December 22, 1974, and sought to resolve the longstanding land dispute between the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe over the use and ownership of their shared 1882 Executive Order Reservation. The dispute resulted in the establishment of a formal partition line that designated Navajo Partitioned Lands and Hopi Partitioned Lands (“HPL”). The HPL was inhabited by thousands of Navajo people who were required by the federal government to move off those lands. As compensation, the federal government was to provide displaced Navajo families with a replacement home and relocation benefits. To qualify for relocation benefits, each applicant has to show he or she was a legal resident of the HPL as of the date the Act was passed and a head of household on or before moving from the HPL. In 2008, benefits were also extended to the children of Navajo relocatees.
Hearing Officer Harold J. Merkow has been hearing appeals of denial determinations by ONHIR since 1982. In the last three years, Merkow has denied 110 of 113 relocatee applicant appeals, which represents a denial rate of more than 97 percent. But today, in a landmark decision, Judge Steven P. Logan reversed one of Merkow’s many arbitrary rulings by finding “[Merkow’s] revised decision denying Plaintiff’s application for relocation assistance benefits was not supported by substantial evidence, was arbitrary and capricious, and was contrary to law.”