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Navajo, Zuni leaders ask for federal help settling dispute over land

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WASHINGTON – Navajo Nation and Zuni tribal leaders Thursday asked the federal government to step in and mediate a dispute over how to divide an inactive Army base that sits between the tribes’ lands in New Mexico.

The former Fort Wingate borders both reservations and has been claimed by both tribes as ancestral land with ceremonial significance. But leaders told a House subcommittee Thursday that they have been unable to reach an agreement over the division of the land and asked for federal mediation.

“This is one of the highest priorities for the Zuni Tribe,” said Gerald Hooee Sr., a Zuni Tribe Council member. “The land can provide the Zuni Tribe and the Navajo Nation with unparalleled opportunities for economic development.”

Fort Wingate was used to store and dispose of explosives before it was closed in 1993 and its 20,700 acres of public lands were divided into 25 parcels.

After sufficient clean up, the Department of the Interior said the lands could be transferred to the Navajo Nation and the Zuni, but that the tribes first had to reach an agreement between themselves over the division of the Army land.

But after 15 years of negotiations, the tribes are no further ahead than they were when they started said, Hooee said.

While they welcome federal intervention, the Navajo are not at all happy with a current bill that would divide the first three parcels of land between the two tribes, said Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize.

He said the bill, sponsored by Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., would give the Zuni tribe one parcel covering 6,000 acres. The Navajo would get two parcels that total only 900 acres combined, Naize said.

“That’s not a 50-50, that’s what we call a 15-85 split,” Naize said. “If this bill gives more land to Zuni and less to Navajo, what should we expect in the future?”

Naize added that much of the land the Navajo would get under Pearce’s bill is “blown up.”

Hooee criticized the Navajo Nation for its “attacks” on Pearce after he introduced the bill to divide the first three parcels. Hooee said the bill just represents a division the tribes had agreed to in 1997.

In his testimony, Hooee said he had come to Washington to ask Congress to expand Pearce’s bill so it transfers all 25 parcels at Fort Wingate to the two tribes on a 50-50 basis.

The tribes have until 2020 to come to an agreement or the land will remain in a federal trust, but both men said Thursday that their respective tribes hope to settle the issue much sooner.

“We’re two sovereigns who are attempting to reach a mutually beneficial agreement on how best to divide up land,” Naize said. “We’re not going to wait, we’re going to work on it right now.”