Utah Navajos - Mrs. Sleepy, Little Wagon, Tom Mustache and Yellow Hat - Want Land Issues Resolved
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – It's been 52 years since the federal government enacted law to designate land use rights for McCracken Mesa. To date, residents are still waiting for the Navajo Nation and the federal government to officially establish rights that were supposed to have been carried out by January 1963.
In 1989, the Navajo Nation identified 27 individuals who were to have been given preference to occupy McCracken Mesa in San Juan County, Utah – residents with names such as Mrs. Sleepy, Little Wagon, Slim of the Mexican Clan, Tom Mustache and Yellow Hat.
The priority-list occupants have since passed on, but dozens of their descendants showed up at a Dec. 14 Resources Committee meeting to request that this unfinished business be made a priority for settlement, and that the issue not get lost in the January transition of administrations.
“I'm one of the offspring of the people that are on priority listing,” Chester Benally said. “My grandpa and my dad are listed on this. ... We have always resided and lived there, centuries, and that is our original lands. The 27 families, we are the offspring of those people and it's very important to us that we be given legally what is due us.”
He said the residents want to be involved all the way through the process in the issues that affect them. “We need the Resources Committee to be a part of that and to direct the BIA and the Navajo Nation to come forth so that we can work with them.”
According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and local Navajo historians, Dine people were the only inhabitants of McCracken Mesa and the surrounding region prior to European settlement. With the influx of settlers, Navajos were thrust into a world of a formal organized system of government and land use that was foreign to them.
As early as 1885 and continuing into the 1940s, Navajo hogans and corrals were burned. In the 1930s, Anglo stockmen attempted to move the Navajos off the mesa, an effort supported by federal officials. When the feds began issuing grazing permits on public domain lands in 1934 under the Taylor Grazing Act, Navajos were denied equal rights to use those lands.
Residents say their ancestors have always lived on McCracken Mesa. Traces of hogans, shade houses, sheep corrals, sweat lodges, farming plots and deteriorated eating utensils remain. They used the area year-round for agriculture, grazing and residence and developed natural springs and water wells for daily use.
Their ancestors and leaders – Kayelli, Bah, Asdzann Ki diilidi, Hosteen Bagodi and Biighaanii – never surrendered to Kit Carson, nor were they imprisoned at Fort Sumner. In addition, residents say there is significant evidence to indicate they lived in the areas of Bear Ears, LaSalle Mountain, Green River and Blue Mountain, stretching out into Salt Lake Valley.
After passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, they said, Mormon ranchers seized their ancestral lands used and they were forced to relocate to south of the San Juan River, yet their ancestors kept migrating back to the Mesa and beyond.
Horses and burros belonging to Navajo residents were confiscated, impounded and destroyed, including a tame family horse that was mutilated with a machete and shot. An estimated 116 horses and 38 burros were rounded up and destroyed, their remains taken to a meat-packing plant outside Provo, Utah, where they were processed into fish food. In 1952, families of the destroyed animals filed a federal lawsuit known as Hatahley v. United States and in 1956 were awarded a lump sum of $100,000.
Physical altercations occurred between Navajo families, state and county law enforcement and Mormon ranchers. Thirty individuals from eight families were “scuffled down, handcuffed and incarcerated” at San Juan County Jail, including the elderlies, young women and men.
Since 1958, when McCracken Mesa was added to the Navajo Reservation, current residents and their ancestors have waited for their lands to be restored. “I think this time is probably right to say that all the people that are involved, that are impacted by the issues of McCracken Mesa, are probably finally in the position to want to resolve and to take care of the issues that we're talking about here,” Benally said.
Though the action is looked at by regulators as a “resettlement,” Benally said, “We have always lived where we live and we have always used that land – so there's no resettlement. We all know our place up there and where we stand as far as the land base is concerned. I think when you say resettlement, there's a lot of people that come in and want to be part of the action, and that shouldn't be the case. Let's not call it resettlement. We know where we're at already.”
He said they have outlived the policies, regulations and laws that were proposed in the early stages regarding use of the land. Each time a different administration has come in to address the issue, he said, “It has never taken place simply because it was just all one-sided from the standpoint of the Navajo Nation. The people were never, ever really informed.
“I think that is the problem. I think these people here (residents) are with one mind. Hear us out. Work with us and we should be able to work with you to take care of the issues at hand,” he said.
Chester Johnson said although residents were forced off the land by the Mormon ranchers, “Our ancestors didn't give up. They continued to be on the land.” He said a tribal resolution was passed in 1959 to create the land order. “A mandate was written into that law to get it done by January 1963. But to this day it hasn't been done for some reason. I don't know why.
“The situation has changed from 1958 up till now. The population growth has increased over 100 percent. So how do we fit this 1958 land order? It really doesn't fit. It's more irrelevant to how we're living on that mesa. We want to modify it in such a way that it fits our present living,” he said.
Sanford Jones, whose father, S.B. Jones is on the priority list, told the committee, “My dad got a letter from Washington, D.C. How many of these people that live up there have that? We come talk to people. People don't want to listen. It's a hot issue. There's a lot of frustration.”
Resources Chairman George Arthur reassured residents. “We don't want it to stop here. We don't want it to be put on the back burner. We will figure a way how to keep this discussion going.”
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