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Navajo officials split on plan to divide former military base with Zuni

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WASHINGTON – Two Navajo Nation officials split Thursday on a plan to divide a former Army depot in New Mexico between the Navajo and the Zuni tribes, with one opponent calling it a surrender of tribal land.

Navajo Council Speaker Johnny Naize said the bill – which would give 9,000 acres of Fort Wingate to the Navajo and 9,000 acres to the Zuni – has some flaws but is “in the best interest of the Navajo Nation.”

“The resolution for us today is not perfect,” Naize said. “But it is a division based on the fairness and consideration of our mutual claims.”

Zuni Pueblo Gov. Arlen Quetawki Sr. agreed, telling the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs that changing the plan now could kill the deal.

But Navajo Council member Edmund Yazzie called the plan a giveaway of “sacred” land that once belonged to the Navajo.

“My Dine people … oppose the idea of having another tribe coming in and taking away their livelihood and homelands,” said Yazzie, noting that 29 chapters in Eastern Navajo Nation passed a resolution early this month opposing the bill.

The tribes have been negotiating with the federal government since 1997 over the former Fort Wingate, which ceased active service in 1993. But the tribes were unable to reach a deal, and a House bill introduced two years ago was criticized by Naize as unfair to the Navajo.

Tribal officials met in Washington in July with House members and reached an informal agreement to divide the land. That deal is reflected in the new bill considered Thursday by the subcommittee.

The Fort Wingate Land Division Act “fairly” divides the base’s land, which was once occupied by both the Navajo and Zuni.

Naize said the bill reflects the input of both tribes and is “the beginning of a long-awaited close to this intertribal dispute.”

But Yazzie called the plan an imposition on the Navajo Nation’s promised land that is “sacred as an offering site for our prayers, ceremony and ritual.”

He said previous plans would have reserved the northern part of the base for the Navajo, while the current bill gives much of the northern portions to the Zuni.

Quetawki said that the deal is not perfect for either tribe, but it’s the best both will get.

“Under the bill, neither of the tribes receives all of the land they wanted,” he said. “However, that is what compromise is all about.”

Quetawki urged the subcommittee to pass the bill, and he warned against trying to change it again.

“Any effort to change the allocation of lands in the bill … could sink the bill,” Quetawki said. “If that happens, it is likely the two tribes will end up with nothing and the lands will end up being used for some other purpose.”

The subcommittee took no action on the bill Thursday.