- By Rima Krisst
Editor's Note; This article was first publshed by the Navajo Times. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
PIÑON, Ariz. — Emotions ran high at the packed Resources and Development Committee meeting at Piñon Chapter last Wednesday over the issuance of the new 10 sheep unit grazing permits for residents of the Dzil Yijiin Navajo Partitioned Lands, per a resolution that was passed by the previous RDC.
Black Mesa area livestock owners, who have testified several times in the past year, are tired of waiting for answers from officials, they say.
“We hoped people would realize how devastating this is to us,” said livestock owner Dorothy Yazzie. “For over 40 years, we’ve been impacted by the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement and they’re not finished with us yet. We see this as a termination of our way of life.”
Delegate Kee Allen Begay said the reason for the meeting with livestock owners and grazing officials was to try to come to consensus about a “reasonable or sufficient” amount of sheep units.
Tearful livestock owners testified that the 10 sheep-unit issue is continuing to cause hardship and trauma and that they were never included in the discussions before the policy was adopted.
“When you hear the elders speak, it’s heartbreaking,” said Leonard Chee, from the president’s office. “There is too much talk about the land and not enough about the people.”
“There has to be a way of caring for the vegetation while at the same time keep our way of life going with the grandmas and cheiis,” said Chee.
Rose Lee said raising livestock, taught to her by her mother and grandmother, is all she knows.
It is her livelihood and the animals are her family. To her, the reduction of livestock is equivalent to cutting someone’s paycheck as well as their food source.
“When we can no longer have sheep, this way of life will become meaningless,” Lee stated in her testimony. “It would devastate our hearts and souls. Is that what our Navajo leaders want for us?”
‘The hardship is not good’
After decades of suffering imposed by the settlement, NPL residents say it feels like they are being hit again with what is another de facto livestock reduction based on Bureau of Indian Affairs forage studies that have not been shared with the people.
Helene Johnson said her 96-year-old mother remembers when her sheep were slaughtered in the 1930s and she feels like they are living through it again. “Back then it was white people who did that; now it’s our own people,” said Johnson. “You would think our own people would have heart for us, but no.”
Chee believes a policy change also needs to happen at the federal level. “Why do you have Navajo Partitioned Land, which labels and categorizes our people from the rest of the reservation?” asked Chee. “Could that be repealed to become one Navajo again?”
He said his biggest concerns are the mental and emotional impacts of the stress on elders, their children, and everyone who’s been affected. “The hardship is not good,” said Chee. “When are we going to say enough is enough?”
Most notable as the meeting progressed was a prevailing sense of confusion over the laws relating to the matter as well as who has the final authority over decision-making, the BIA, which hangs its hat on adhering to land forage data, or the Navajo Nation, which is there to serve the people.
It was evident not everyone had done their homework, said Big Mountain resident Percy Deal, who came to the meeting with six pages of prepared testimony.
A clear understanding of which government entity should take action and initiate a path toward a solution became nebulous leaving people wondering who is in charge and who will take the reins.
‘A political war’
“What bothers me is that no matter how hard we try to justify our cause to be self-sufficient and maintain our culture, it seems the law is thrown back at us,” said Dorothy Yazzie.
“I get the concern about the amount of sheep units,” said Regional BIA Director Bart Stevens who attended meeting, but missed the testimony of community members. “But we have to fall within what the data tells us to do. As stewards, as trustees, we are cautious about how the land is managed.”
Stevens said he understands there are other variables affecting the health of the land like feral horses, trespassers and lack of enforcement. “It’s my signature that’s on those grazing permits,” said Stevens. “I take it very seriously.”
While Stevens said he appreciated the cultural and economic considerations, he seemed to be more focused on covering his own assets. “As stewards of the land, it is our responsibility is to make sure that we’re not getting into a situation like we’ve been in in the past where there’s been a lot of overgrazing and we have a litigious issue in which the BIA is held responsible,” he said.
Department of Agriculture Director Leo Watchman said that while he believes the land dispute settlement was unfair “from the get-go,” he also has concerns about overstocking and overgrazing, and livestock owners who are doing that without permits.
“We reaffirm what the bureau is saying on the forage studies,” said Watchman. “Yes, there is not enough out there to provide nourishment to our cattle, our horses, our sheep.”
Piñon Chapter President Bessie Allen made the point that the new 10 sheep-unit permit policy is an unfunded mandate, saying that no one is there to roll it out properly, there is no money to enforce it, and there are no range management plans to lead them into the future.
“If the Congress didn’t fund it, why bother with it?” she asked. Allen also mentioned that NPL residents were supposed to have No. 1 priority at tribal ranches, but they have been told they’re not eligible. “Who is really calling the shots?” asked Allen. “I said to Leo Watchman, ‘These people have all these questions and you guys don’t have a guideline to follow,’” said Allen.
She said people are being bounced back and forth from one entity to another without getting the answers they need. “They’re just playing games with us,” said Allen. “Everything is word of mouth and there’s so much confusion.”
Some of the elders have also experienced demeaning treatment and threats by Department of Ag employees, she added.
Lee and Daisy Kiyaani stated that the department’s approach to administering the NPL grazing permit provisions “is inhumane, lacks transparency and there is no consultation with the directly affected.”
“All decisions are done at the Window Rock and Gallup BIA Region levels,” they said. “Sometimes we are made to feel caught in the middle of a political war between the BIA and the Navajo Tribe.”
Watchman argued that, despite being understaffed, department employees have been out to the affected areas regularly to conduct outreach, workshops, land analyses, and consultations with community members on a regular basis over many years.
“Look at the mental trauma people are going through,” said Allen, who believes all of the stress is causing health effects.
“Just this year we lost a lot of the elders,” she said. “And here they talk about saving the elders.”
Finally, Allen questioned the legitimacy and methodology of the forage studies, which she says do not take into account the varying terrain, soil and vegetation in the three different NPL precincts. “I understand Mr. Stevens is trying to be a good soldier, but it seems these people are so focused on the law that they forgot the humanistic side of the whole thing,” said Yazzie. “They should have made some leeway for us. Our self-sufficiency is really eroded.”
Yazzie added that the powers that be could have created options like getting additional land where their cattle could go.
“The Navajo Nation talks about sovereignty,” said Yazzie. “What does it mean where your people are in a bind like this?”
‘They can lobby Congress’
A determined Delegate Jimmy Yellowhair said he’s preparing to drop legislation to raise the sheep unit count to 50. “It’s a very complicated issue, because we’re going to have rescind the legislation of the 23rd Council,” he said. However, Stevens bucked the idea and suggested he would have to drop the number of permits issued if the sheep unit count was raised.
“Passing legislation within the Navajo Nation to say we want 50 sheep units in conflict with what the vegetation study says does not propel me to change,” said Stevens. “I cannot because I have the federal law and I have the vegetation study that tells me that land cannot sustain 50 sheep units.”
At this moment people were trying to figure out what federal law he was referring to. To add to the confusion, Stevens said that Congress would have to change the law in order for him to change. Then he suggested Navajo Nation leaders would have to persuade Congress.
“If that’s an avenue, as tribal leaders, then they can lobby Congress and request a change. I cannot,” he said.
A visibly stunned Delegate Kee Allen Begay told Stevens that said he believed the final authority for changing the law belongs to RDC. “My recommendation on behalf of the committee is that we swiftly get a legislation put in place,” said Begay. “At the end of the day, I think the RDC has the final say.”
It appeared that Stevens’ greatest concern was not being sued. “If one supersedes federal law, that sets the U.S. government up for litigation – that’s not going to happen,” said Stevens. “Then I’m in trouble with Washington, D.C., for not following federal law. I can’t be put in that position, the United States government cannot be put in that position.”
A written question to Stevens requesting confirmation of what laws he was referring to has not been responded to nor was a request for clarification from RDC.
“When Mr. Stevens spoke, I was devastated,” said Yazzie. “The main thing that’s really closing the door on us is the forage study, which Stevens is standing upon.”
Code of Federal Regulations
In the meeting Percy Deal stood out as the one most familiar with the laws guiding the issues.
“I wish to highlight sections of the federal policies which I feel both the BIA and the Navajo DOA missed,” said Deal.
Per Code of Federal Regulations, Title 25, Part 161.101, Deal said that the BIA is required to recognize and comply by tribal laws regulating activities on NPL. He pointed out that 161.302 states that grazing permits should not be issued for less than 10 sheep or exceed 350 sheep units. Deal said 161.802 indicates that RDC “will have the final authority on behalf of the Navajo Nation to approve amendments to the NPL grazing provisions…”
He explained that the BIA’s 10 sheep-unit recommendation to RDC in the last Council was just that, not a federal law, which was adopted by Navajo Nation resolution (RDCMA-27-18).
Per 161.204, Deal said the BIA is instructed to review and adjust the carrying capacity and stocking rate of each range unit on a continuing basis and in consultation with the Grazing Committee and affected permittees.
Deal also pointed out that RDCMA-27-18 directs the DOA to implement the BIA recommendations on a “chapter ready” basis rather than by precinct. Finally, Deal indicated that the forage study that the 10 sheep-unit recommendation was based on didn’t include an evaluation of NPL Precinct 2, which encompasses the Dzil Yijiin region, but instead extrapolated the data from Precincts 1 and 3, which is clearly stated in RDCMA-27-18. Watchman confirmed that the Precinct 2 study was completed after the resolution adopting the 10 sheep units was passed.
Deal’s current recommendations to RDC included: consulting with Diné medicine persons on the cultural and religious value of sheep and changing the 10 sheep-unit limit to “up to 75 sheep units,” which would be more consistent with the current federal law and the original cancelled permits.
Deal says the BIA never considered cultural impact, Title 1 of the Navajo Nation Code or Fundamental Law when recommending the 10 sheep-unit regulation and that should be revisited. He suggests eligibility criteria, including enumeration and heirship requirements should be reviewed for fairness and equity.
Finally, he recommended that the BIA and DOA should be involved with mitigation of adverse impacts along with providing technical assistance and restoration of rangelands. By the end of the meeting, community members left with more questions and no clear directives.
“We were looking for hopeful answers, but we didn’t get that,” said Dorothy Yazzie. “The Resources Committee seems very indecisive.”
“I think RDC isn’t sure, because I don’t think they really study the law,” said Bessie Allen. “There are places in it where we can take it to court and win.”
Kee Allen Begay has asked livestock owners to put together a position statement that addresses their issues and concerns and could serve as a foundation for new legislation. “We have to make sure these people have had their input and have support,” said Begay.“The bottom line for me is that this problem has to be addressed or it will continue down the road.”
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